January 25, 2018
A 69-hour US government shutdown ended early this week with passage of a short-term spending bill that funds federal operations through February 8. This is the fourth temporary funding measure Congress has passed since it failed to meet an October 1 deadline last year for the FY2018 budget.
On January 20, the one year anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the shutdown began when Republicans failed to garner the 60 votes needed to approve a stopgap bill that would have kept the government funded through February 16. With few exceptions, all but essential government service agencies came to a halt at midnight, January 19, putting hundreds of thousands of federal employees on furlough without pay. It’s the first time in modern history that the federal government has shut down with the House of Representatives, Senate, and the White House all controlled by the same party.
Called by many “The Schumer Shutdown” and dubbed “The Trump Shutdown” by others, the Senate’s deadlock resulted over Democrats’ demands to find a permanent fix for the DACA program. A majority of Americans would like to see the DACA program continued, but disapprove of government shutdown as a political tactic.
Trump first introduced his “America First” budget blueprint on March 16 of last year. The proposal covers only discretionary spending, not “entitlements” or mandatory spending. To pay for increased funding for defense and a proposed border wall Trump famously promised to build during his campaign, the document calls for broad cuts in programs related to science and research, climate change, the environment, professional training, community development, international aid and peacekeeping, arts and humanities, and more. It also proposes eliminating 66 federal programs altogether, cutting funding entirely for Public Broadcasting, the Interagency Council on Homelessness, Legal Services, NEA, NEH, US Trade and Development, African Development Foundation, and a dozen other agencies.
By law, Congress has until April 15 each year for final adoption of the full budget resolution — or, it can write itself deadline extensions in the form of short-term spending bills, also called Continuing Resolutions or CRs. The Trump Administration operated on one stopgap measure after another until well into October, when the budget narrowly passed. LEARN MORE.
Since then, more stop-gap bills are keeping the federal government running as Congress battles over appropriations. Republicans pushed a massive spending package through in September, the only legally required budget deadline Congress managed to meet, and then used “reconciliation,” a tactic meant to resolve partisan gridlock but used now to force the party line, to pass sweeping tax reform in December. Republicans also attempted to use reconciliation in repeated attempts to repeal Obamacare, another issue which has bogged down the FY2018 budget process.
Though not common, government shutdowns in the US are nothing new. Since passage of the Congressional Budget Act in 1974, the US federal government has shut down nineteen times over disagreements tying fiscal year budgetary votes to ultimatums on a wide range of issues, from abortion to education to defense spending and more. This time, budget talks for FY2018 have stumbled over immigration and border security issues, forcing the January 20 shutdown. Congress now has until February 8 before the threat of another shutdown looms.
If the above summary of the FY2018 budget process sounds too complicated and dysfunctional for words, you’re right. American political ideology has become increasingly divided along party lines over the past two decades, especially during the Obama administration, when Republicans were instructed to work against anything the administration tried to accomplish, explicitly to guarantee the failure of American government.
Under the Trump administration, Democrats and Republicans are even more sharply divided on just about everything, including immigration and racial issues, aid to the poor and human rights, climate change, taxation and the role of government, defense spending, foreign policy, religion, and education. In fact, while the Democratic party attracts more Americans with higher education degrees, Republicans are working to abolish the Department of Education, while during his campaign Trump declared, “I love the poorly educated” because they are “more loyal.”
Now, as Republicans manipulate and bend legislative rules to their own partisan ends, they blame Democrats for failures of the past which were for the most part caused by Republican obstructionism. Although Democrats are not entirely spotless, the GOP has truly become the “party of dirty tricks.” The recent shutdown is a case in point; Republicans managed to make Democrats look bad for disrupting process and taking a strong partisan stand, while Republicans themselves have done nothing but obstruct process and draw partisan lines in the sand for years.
Speaking of doing nothing, even Trump’s “America First” budget plan has been called “a ruse” in Washington. Frustrated with months of haggling, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said the budget “has no impact on anything whatsoever affecting the American people,” calling the entire budget process “the biggest hoax passed upon the American people ever.” Trump’s budget manifesto was a required gesture to initiate a strategy using the budget process to fast-track tax reform. The budget process was put in place near the end of Republican president Nixon’s ill-fated term to keep the president from blocking appropriations without any input from Congress. But Republicans like Corker want this to change — not to make the system more fair, but to allow Congress to make sweeping changes to mandatory spending; those entitlements that Democrats tend to hold dear. Mandatory spending, which makes up roughly 70% of government spending, is not addressed in the fiscal year budget but rather, is determined by individual pieces of legislation for each entitlement program.
Dependence on stopgap measures means the threat of government shutdown is conjured again and again, lending a sense of urgency and crisis to issues that Congress should be addressing by judicious, rational, and timely legislative process. While a government shutdown can have short-term effects on the economy, especially inside the beltway, Congressional dysfunction is far more damaging to the US economy and by extension, to the US dollar and its role in the global economy. Economists have long operated on the maxim that “business doesn’t like uncertainty.” But in the face of an increasingly dysfunctional Congress, many are starting to ask, is uncertainty the new normal?
- The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a nonpartisan research and policy institute. We pursue federal and state policies designed both to reduce poverty and inequality and to restore fiscal responsibility in equitable and effective ways.
- Convergence Center for Policy Reform is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to helping promote dialogue and solve problems across the political divide on issues of national consequence.
This brief was compiled by Jennifer Chesworth. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.