Politics & Policy

Avoid Government Shutdowns and Still Restrain Spending

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Automatic continuing resolutions can solve this problem.

After President Donald Trump in March signed the massive $1.3 trillion spending bill for 2018, he warned Congress: “I will never sign another bill like this again.”

He shouldn’t have to. But unless something is done to stop Washington’s annual game of budgetary chicken, he may not have much of a choice.

Every year it’s the same story. Congress passes almost none of its twelve routine spending bills by the start of the new fiscal year. Facing the pressure of a government shutdown, it instead passes what is known as a continuing resolution (CR), which funds the government at the previous year’s level.

A CR is a stopgap measure. It keeps the federal government’s lights on and buys Congress time to cobble together a one-year spending bill.

To avoid a looming (or actual) government shutdown, this one huge spending bill usually features the worst aspects of what the two parties want. That bill then gets sent to the president, who has to sign it — or take the blame for a shutdown.

Just like this year’s massive $1.3 trillion omnibus, those massive catch-all spending bills never result in less spending — always more. And taxpayers lose.

Yet there is a fairly simple solution. Congress and the president should enact a law providing that if spending bills aren’t passed by the start of the fiscal year, a CR automatically goes into effect and stays in effect until new spending bills are approved.

No vote needed, no time limits. But an automatic CR would come with small automatic cuts in spending that kicked in as we got deeper into the fiscal year.

Change of this kind can’t come soon enough. Partial shutdowns have happened 20 times over the past four decades, ranging in duration from a few hours to three weeks. That’s an average of about once every other year. Moody’s estimated that the 2013 shutdown alone cost the U.S. economy $20 billion.

Even the threat of a shutdown — now almost an annual occurrence — causes wasteful disruption. Agencies must begin working days or weeks in advance to plan for furloughs and, for some, how to get their work done with minimal emergency staff. That all costs time and money. Employees are left hanging. Long-term planning is difficult if not impossible.

An automatic CR would provide certainty for agency heads and employees alike. And taxpayers would win, so long as relying on the automatic CR entailed spending cuts. Proposals to couple an automatic CR with a spending increase to account for inflation or economic growth would not provide the same motivating force — and would simply make our spending problems worse.

Two senators have already introduced legislation that would create an automatic CR while instituting periodic spending cuts.

A measure by Ohio senator Rob Portman, who has been a leader on this issue since he came to the Senate, would allow for an automatic CR to replace any appropriations bill not completed by the regular deadline of October 1. After four months, it would cut discretionary spending by 1 percent, and spending would be further reduced by 1 percent each quarter until a new agreement was reached.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced similar legislation coupling an automatic CR with automatic spending cuts.

“Almost everybody hates government shutdowns. They don’t accomplish anything. They don’t get our fiscal house in order and they disrupt critical government programs that have a big impact on people’s lives,” Portman said in a press release. “As leverage in a political negotiation, they’re fool’s gold.”

The real treasure would be if Congress simply did its job. Lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis with the threat of a government shutdown perennially hanging over the country is no way to run the government.

To resolve this conundrum, lawmakers should give themselves a third option — one that provides breathing room to scrutinize spending in a public forum without the pressure of a looming shutdown and gives the president usable leverage to restrain spending.

Automatic CRs would eliminate the false choice between fiscal responsibility and keeping the government running — and they would also eliminate the excuse for casting a bad vote.

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