How to Avoid the Next Government Shutdown

Lawmakers from both parties are exploring ways to prevent this from happening again, but there are no easy answers.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Jan. 22, 2019, 8 p.m.

Washington still hasn’t found a way out of the partial government shutdown, but rank-and-file lawmakers have some ideas about how to prevent the next one.

The lapse in appropriations funding has kept a quarter of the federal government closed for more than a month, so majority members in both chambers have begun considering ways to avoid future shutdowns—in some cases by carrot and some by stick.

Sen. Rand Paul’s bill falls into the latter category. He released legislation last week that would—in lieu of shuttering the agencies—force immediate, automatic, incremental funding cuts if Congress reaches the end of the fiscal year without a budget. Cuts would increase every three months as long as negotiators lack an agreement.

“The government is still shut down … because Congress doesn’t face any consequences for failing to pass the spending bills on time,” the Kentucky Republican said. “They have no motivation to avoid gridlock.”

That approach is similar to that of other Republican senators, including Rob Portman of Ohio, who introduced legislation that would continue funding the government in the event of an appropriation lapse and institute cuts only after four months of impasse.

Portman, an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has repeatedly tried to make shutdowns extinct, said the likelihood of his legislation’s passage becomes “greater the longer people experience what a shutdown is like.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland said he and other members based in the D.C. region are exploring legislation that would keep the government functioning no matter what, thereby keeping federal paychecks flowing to many of their constituents.

“We are right now pursuing legislation to prevent this from ever happening again by saying that if there’s a lapse in the budget and the budget is not approved, then a continuing resolution would be automatic at that point,” Raskin said in an interview. “It’s the federal workers who are standing up for America, and they want to go to work and want to do their jobs and get paid for it.”

When asked if he would support such a proposal, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland brought up Australia. There, if legislators do not pass a budget, the government falls. But he said such a system would probably not work in this country. Similarly, he said automatic CRs could run afoul of the Constitution, which explicitly tasks Congress with authorizing spending.

“I’ve been here some time, and we’ve always talked about that. It becomes very difficult if you don’t have legislation which authorizes,” Hoyer said. Nonetheless, he added: “That’s certainly something that ought to be considered. The only people that benefit from shutdowns are Russia, China, and other competitors we have.”

Not all Beltway-area members are on board. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said last week such proposals were “valid” but should extract “enough pain” on Congress and the White House to force consensus.

Warner introduced legislation on Tuesday that would cut funding for Congress and the White House, rather than affected agencies, should appropriators miss the deadline. It’s named “The Stop STUPIDITY (Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In The Coming Years) Act.”

Senators of both parties also hope to ramp up pressure on lawmakers by halting congressional pay when Congress misses its deadline to fund the government. While some members of Congress opt to donate their shutdown pay to charity, current law stipulates the Treasury Department must pay each member of the legislative branch.

“I think it’s very important that we are subject to the same rules as everybody else,” said freshman Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. “If you can’t pass a budget, you shouldn’t get paid.”

A bicameral, bipartisan committee late last year, nearly a month before the shutdown, failed to pass a host of reforms aimed at preventing last-minute negotiations like the one that precipitated the current funding failure. McConnell at the time said he hoped Congress “can build on the foundation this important select committee laid” to produce “meaningful reforms” of the appropriations process.

“The only thing everybody could agree on was that we do biennial budgeting,” Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican member of the committee, lamented at a contentious Iowa town hall on Monday. “That was it. And that didn’t solve the problem.”

Republican senators up for reelection in 2020 re-upped some of those proposals last week. They would force Congress to remain in session in the event of a funding lapse by preventing long-term adjournments, withholding funds for official travel, and mandating daily quorum calls.

“You want to hit members of Congress where it hurts? Don't let anyone go home for the weekend to see their families,” GOP Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma said on the floor. “Now, that may sound overly simplistic, but when I bring that up to other members of Congress, they are like, ‘Whoa, that's too much.’ Really?”

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