Government Shutdown: How Did We Get Here?

We’re just days away from the expiration of funding for the federal government running dry, and that event that is spoken about only in hushed tones of dread by the Washington establishment: a government shutdown. For those who regard the federal government as the provider of all that is good and noble in the world, whose Life-of-Julia worldviews require state intervention in all activities great and small, this represents an unthinkable tragedy. The rest of us tend not to really notice, except when the Feds go out of their way to prevent World War II veterans from visiting their own, open air memorial.

Of course, the shutdown can be averted, and there’s a decent chance it will be. Congress is scrambling to cobble together a stopgap funding bill that will push the deadline back until December, when weary lawmakers eager to bask in yuletide festivities with their loved ones will be less likely to put up a fight over the use and abuse of taxpayer dollars.

But more interesting than whether or not the government shuts down (or for how long, or whose fault it is) is the question of why we keep finding ourselves in this predicament. Why is a funding crisis always just around the corner, and why do we keep having to choose between funding absolutely everything without question or being labeled as obstructionists, anarchists, and terrorists?

The reason for this is simple: bad governance on the part of congressional leadership. Government funding is supposed to appropriated throughout the year in a series of appropriations bills for the various government agencies. So, ordinarily we would see a funding bill for the Department of Defense, another one for the Department of Health and Human Services, another one for energy and commerce, and so on. Each of these bills would be debated and amended, and we would be able to have a constructive dialogue about what actually needs to be funded, and what we can afford to cut.

But that’s not what happens anymore. Instead, Congress waits until the end of the fiscal year, panics that all these departments are suddenly going to be without funding, and lumps them all together into either a continuing resolution, or an omnibus spending bill. The size of the bill means no one is able to read or understand it; the timeline is such that there is limited opportunity for debate or amendments. Those Members of Congress who have reservations about the continued reckless spending are told that they must support it, or else they are “shutting down the government.” The bill passes, and we get ready to do the same thing all over again next year.

It’s a trick, it’s a swindle, it’s a political calculation made to preserve the status quo and prevent real reform from ever happening. Congressional leadership enlists the aid of media outlets to demonize and demagogue all opposition to this insane way of doing business, and rank and file Members fall for it because they can’t afford the kind of bad publicity they’re sure to get by standing on principle and demanding good governance.

This mode of governing by crisis predates John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, but some of the blame must still be laid at their feet. As leaders of the majority party in both the House and Senate, they set the agenda, and they could reform the process if they wanted to.

Instead, Boehner is spending all his time pretending to be a fiscal conservative, while his allied call those who disagree with him “right-wing Marxists”, and Mitch McConnell takes direction from Harry Reid as if Democrats still controlled the Senate. This is why so many conservatives in Congress are upset. This is why they’re demanding new leadership.

The government may shut down, and it may not, but the fact that we are even talking about it is a reflection of Boehner and McConnell’s failures to depart significantly from the tactics of Pelosi and Reid. We’ve got to do better.