Politics & Policy

How to End Government Shutdowns

Government shutdowns are becoming routine, and it’s easy to imagine we’ll see another one in the days to come. Though congressional leaders have been inching towards an agreement that would have allowed discretionary spending to bust through federal spending caps, President Trump has now declared that if he doesn’t get his way on the construction of a border wall, he’d welcome a shutdown. It’s always hard to know how seriously to take the president’s pronouncements. His apparent eagerness for a shutdown might be little more than bluster. Then again, the resolution of the last shutdown was widely interpreted as a humiliating climbdown for the Democratic leadership in Congress, and the president could be itching for a repeat. But last time around, Republicans had yet to make a concession on funding CHIP, which gave them additional leverage. To keep the government open, the GOP leadership agreed to fund CHIP for several more years, taking the issue off the table. That could, at least in theory, strengthen the hands of congressional Democrats, at least some of whom might relish the thought of another confrontation with a not terribly popular president. Whether or not another shutdown is imminent, the mechanics of partisan enmity ensure that we’ll see many more of them, with all the disruption they entail.

Unless, that is, we put an end to shutdowns outright by passing a version of Ohio senator Rob Portman’s appealingly literal “End Government Shutdowns Act.” Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a former Portman staffer, writes in favor of the proposal over at Economics 21. And he makes a compelling case. Essentially, the bill puts an end to shutdowns by establishing that if Congress does not pass a budget in a timely fashion, a continuing resolution that funds all government programs under the levels previously established would take hold by default.

So why wouldn’t a dysfunctional Congress just keep kicking the can down the road? Portman’s bill builds in a poison pill: Funding levels would be cut by 1 percent every three months until a proper budget is passed. Riedl acknowledges the possibility that small-government Republicans might take such automatic cuts in stride, giving Democrats a reason to balk. But then why not propose to get rid of the poison pill? It’s a good question. Indeed, Portman and his like-minded allies might consider moving to get rid of it preemptively. And President Trump would do well to cheer them on. Eager though he might be to win this shutdown fight, the truth is that, in the long run, no one wins a shutdown fight.

Update: It looks like we have a deal.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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