The Shutdown, A Uniquely American Phenomenon, Gets Real
Updated: Aug 19, 2019
At midnight on Saturday night, for the nineteenth time in the history of the Republic, the United States government shut down due to the inability of Congress and the White House to agree on a spending resolution. Republicans, referring to the turn of events as the “Schumer Shutdown” are charging that Democrats are holding hostage a four-week extension of current spending levels until protections for Dreamers – immigrants who were brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents as very young children – are either committed to or, ideally, attached to the spending resolution. Democrats, using the mantra “Trump Shutdown”, point out that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) failed to secure the support of even 50 Republican Senators on Friday for his last-ditch effort to keep the government open for another month.
Although the federal government has been closed for the last 48 hours, the shutdown had been largely notional until this morning. The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who had been furloughed as of Saturday morning don’t work on the weekends; the real impacts of the shutdown will begin today. With so many federal employees required to stay home – potentially on a mandatory, unpaid vacation – barebones teams throughout the various federal agencies are tasked, beginning this morning, with doing their best to advance their organizations’ missions. Delays in processing Social Security and Medicare payments will begin in earnest today as these skeleton crews struggle to do the work of entire federal departments. The IRS, burdened late last year with implementing the most significant change to the tax code in a generation, begins this morning to lose precious man-hours in advancing this work, and will be unavailable until the shutdown ends to provide guidance to taxpayers and, perhaps more importantly, to their accountants. Borrowers of loans backed by the Small Business Administration or Ginnie Mae will begin today to see delays in the processing of their applications. The list, of course, goes on and on.
Understanding that most Americans haven’t actually felt the impact of the government shutdown is a critical point politically. Both the GOP and Democrats believe that they stand to gain political points among the electorate by sticking to their guns and holding firm in this debate. Over the weekend, political operatives in both parties circulated polling data that suggested obstinacy was in the best political interest of their respective party. Republicans pointed to an improving generic ballot poll that showed the gap between voters’ preference for a generic Congressional Democrat and a generic Congressional Republican had narrowed to just four points, down from a gulf of 13 points as recently as a few weeks ago. Democrats, for their part, pointed to polling that suggested that 41 percent of voters blamed the GOP for the shutdown versus just 36 percent who blamed Democrats. With the shutdown entering the workweek and its impact now affecting millions of Americans who depend, either personally or professionally, on the federal government or its services, political operatives in both parties know that the initial polling over the weekend is now meaningless. Historically, voters very quickly pick a side when their wallets are squeezed because of an inability of their elected leaders to compromise.
Federal government shutdowns are uniquely American. The Constitutional requirement that Congress be responsible for setting spending levels through the appropriations process while the President runs the agencies for which those spending bills appropriate funds have made the United States exclusively susceptible to the phenomenon of the entire government ceasing operations amidst political posturing.
Though government shutdowns have become much more common of late, our Republic somehow managed to avoid the experience for its first 200 years. There were in fact three shutdowns in the ‘80s – in 1981, 1984, and 1986 – all of which lasted for less than one day. It wasn’t until the two Clinton/Gingrich shutdowns of 1995/1996 that the U.S. saw its first longer-term government shutdowns, of five days and 27 days, respectively. The last shutdown, in 2013, lasted 17 days and, according to Standard and Poor’s, cost the country 0.6 percent of its projected annualized GDP growth.
That shutdown ended when then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) convinced the conservative arm of his conference that their strategy to link repealing the Affordable Care Act with any extension in government funding “never had a chance.”
Leader McConnell has scheduled a vote in the Senate at noon today that would allow the chamber to pass a three-week spending bill. McConnell has committed verbally to Democrats that, in exchange for their support to reopen the government, he will allow the Senate to vote on an immigration bill that would address the status of Dreamers by February 8. Democrats are insisting that Speaker Ryan (R-WI) also honor this commitment and pledge to allow the House to vote on a bipartisan immigration bill in the next three weeks, as well. Thus far, the Speaker, buoyed by the conservatives in his conference, has declined. Barring a breakthrough in the next three hours, the nineteenth government shutdown in American history will continue.