With government funding expiring yet again this week, it’s time to get real on shutdowns. When used as “leverage,” they become counterproductive, political hostage-taking that almost always backfires. They are also completely unnecessary.
A budget impasse doesn’t have to mean that government stops working. The alternative is a continuation of the status quo through an “automatic continuing resolution.” If appropriations legislation can’t be agreed to, programs would simply carry on as before.
This isn’t a new concept. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 22 states partially shut down without a budget agreement. Twelve continue existing activities at previous levels. Others rely on legislature-approved temporary appropriations measures, like Congress does.
Do automatic continuing resolutions keep states from doing budgets and updating programs? No, quite the opposite. When shutdown looms, members of Congress and many state legislators face a tough choice between accepting a likely bloated appropriations package or being responsible for shutting down important services to their fellow citizens.
In states with automatic continuing resolutions, however, the choice is between the existing funding and an appropriations package that majorities consider an improvement. That’s a big difference, and it improves both policy and process while reducing partisanship.
Automatic continuing resolutions reduce the stakes, which draws much of the venom out of the process. Instead of everything being up in the air, and instead of encouraging multiple factions to push for long-shot wins, it narrows the range of possibility and makes it easier to legislate.
If there isn't agreement, no great calamity happens. To pass, an appropriations deal must be better than status-quo spending.
Even so, there is continued pressure to set budgets and revise programs. An automatic continuing resolution at current levels wouldn’t adjust for changes in inflation and population, creating an incentive to deal for politicians who want spending to keep up. In addition, programs must be updated to adjust to changes in society and the world. Without new appropriations, it is more difficult to update the programs and spending allocations between them.
An automatic continuing resolution is far from the only budget reform that the federal government needs to function well again. The rules by which the House and the Senate operate are archaic, need to be modernized, and must be followed, or they aren’t really rules. Some support biennial budgeting, and balanced budget rules are more critical than ever.
This isn't to say that proposed legislation to enact this concept is perfect. Some would cut spending periodically instead of continuing at prior rates. That undermines the political sustainability of the reform, especially when it would indiscriminately cut programs across the board, including some that are vital to America security.
At least one concern is entirely without foundation. Some say a future Congress can't be bound by a current Congress. Yet Congress regularly passes direct spending programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, that now consume 70 percent of current federal spending. In these programs, past Congresses put spending on autopilot unless and until another Congress changes the laws. The current Congress is bound by several fast-track authorities from earlier congresses.
A legitimate but easily addressed criticism is that the Constitution prohibits appropriating funds “to raise and support Armies ... for a longer term than two years.” The simple solution is to limit any automatic extension for the Army to two years when combined with the last nonautomatic appropriations legislation. Even with today’s climate, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be foolish enough to shut down parts of the Army — and only the Army — as leverage for something else.
Admittedly, continuing resolutions are especially harmful to defense programs. But since automatic continuing resolutions might not only reduce time spent under CRs, but also end the shutdown threat, military readiness would be better than under the current system.
Members of Congress, staff, leadership, advocacy, the media, and others waste enormous amounts of time, energy, and trust on completely unnecessary fights. To those who see them as opportunities for leverage, how much have they gotten out of them?
Besides, direct spending programs, like entitlements, are already more than twice as much spending as the discretionary spending addressed in appropriations. But they don’t just spend more — they’re also growing much faster.
Repeated shutdown drama also takes away time and effort that needs to be focused on making autopilot spending programs sustainable. Reforming and reauthorizing the discretionary programs that are worth keeping would also be better uses of Congress’ time.
Members shouldn’t worry that an automatic continuing resolution would weaken the appropriations process, which could hardly be more broken. It’s far more likely to facilitate orderly appropriations.
Ending the counterproductive shutdown dance at the federal level would improve policy, improve the process, and improve congressional politics. As Congress moves to finalize spending for a fiscal year that is nearly halfway over, it’s clear that authorizing automatic continuing resolutions is the smart way forward.
Kurt Couchman is an economist and the vice president of public policy at Defense Priorities. He previously served as a policy expert in congressional offices, most recently as a legislative director for a Republican member of the House of Representatives. Follow him on Twitter @KurtCouchman.
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