Washington's Annual Shutdown Tradition Lives On
Google and NORAD have their Santa trackers, but CNN, it seems, now has a government shutdown tracker.
Such is Washington in December. For nearly two decades, Congress regularly has failed to pass funding bills that allow federal government agencies to continue operating after the annual Sept. 30 deadline. If lawmakers don’t enact legislation to address government funding before the deadline – sometimes a temporary Band-Aid called a continuing resolution, less frequently one big funding package that addresses all government spending for the next fiscal year – the federal government shuts down. That’s what happened in 2013 when the federal government shut down for a long stretch in October while lawmakers fought over funding for the Affordable Care Act.
Before leaving for the campaign trail this year, the House and Senate managed to pass full-year funding bills for some agencies, including the departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Labor, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services (though the Food and Drug Administration has not received funding). No matter what happens this week, those agencies will stay open.
To keep the rest of the government open, lawmakers passed a continuing resolution – a stopgap measure that simply temporarily funds the government at existing levels for a short period of time. Though late December seemed a long ways away back in the fall, that resolution expires this Friday at midnight. If members of Congress and President Trump fail to agree on a new continuing resolution or on full-year funding bills for the remaining agencies, Washington will be living a true nightmare before Christmas. (Or at least the employees of those agencies that shut down will be.)
And there would be a lot not to like. Among the departments and agencies for which fiscal year 2019 spending bills have not passed: Agriculture, Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, the Small Business Administration, State, Transportation, and Treasury. At most of these agencies – the EPA, Justice, and Transportation are the exceptions – anywhere from two-thirds to 95 percent of workers would be furloughed.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is another agency for which lawmakers have not yet passed a full-year spending bill. And that agency, of course, is the one at the center of the saber-rattling.
For months, President Trump has threatened to shut down the whole federal government if Congress does not appropriate funding for his border wall. (The president and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, who will soon be White House Chief of Staff, originally asked for just $1.6 billion for the wall. Mulvaney was one of the officials who helped the president drive the figure up to $5 billion) In a meeting last week with Democratic leaders Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the president even said he would be “proud” to shut down the government over border wall funding. On CNN on Sunday, top White House aide – and immigration hawk – Stephen Miller said, “We’re going to do whatever is necessary to build the border wall to stop this ongoing crisis of illegal immigration.”
By Tuesday, however, there were signs the White House was standing down. In the morning, the president simply said, “We need border security,” and his Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the White House had “other” ways of getting money for the border wall; an opaque reference to a plan to lump $1 billion in unspent funds into an effort to fund the president’s immigration “priorities.” Democrats promptly rejected that offer, with House Speaker-designate Pelosi stating, “Leader Schumer and I have said that we cannot support … a billion-dollar slush fund for the president to implement his very wrong immigration policies.”
While the White House has been digging in and then digging out, lawmakers on Capitol Hill, increasingly motivated by the thought of spending the holidays in Washington (bah humbug!), have coalesced around another stopgap spending measure. On Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he would introduce a measure that will fund the government through early February, effectively kicking the can on making a longer-term deal with the White House to a Democratic majority in the House that takes office on January 3rd.
Though, if a continuing resolution that funds the government until February is enacted this week, the White House will have cause to celebrate – it will have averted what looked to be a collision course with another government shutdown -- pushing the final funding fight to early next year undeniably will make obtaining funding for a border wall even more difficult with a Democratic House. Reading the tea leaves, the White House could dig in once again.
What does recent history indicate?
Way back in 2010 when the Obama White House found itself facing a change in power in Congress (against its favor) and an expiring continuing resolution, the country ended up with a series of short-term spending bills. Before leaving for the campaign trail in September, lawmakers had passed a resolution funding federal agencies From Oct. 1 to Dec. 3. In early December, Congress reconvened, passing a short-term bill that provided funding for two weeks. Right before Christmas, lawmakers passed a third resolution, which kept open agencies through early March 2011. It wasn’t until April, though – and four continuing resolutions later – that lawmakers agreed to a full-year continuing resolution. But a shutdown was averted.
Forget this fight ending with Santa’s return to the North Pole. Washington might be in perpetual shutdown watch until the Easter Bunny appears.