Ban government shutdowns? It’s on the table in D.C.

In The News, Legislation to end ShutdownsBan government shutdowns? It’s on the table in D.C.Minn. freshmen among those trying to end tactic.

Budget & Tax, In The News,  | Data & Documents
Feb 4, 2019  | 8 min read | Print Article

This article by Patrick Condon and Jim Spencer first appeared in Minnesota Star Tribune on February 4, 2019

– Ingrid Christensen, a Minnesota small-business owner whose company relies heavily on federal contracts, lost $20,000 on the government shutdown and doesn’t expect to get it back.

The 35-day shutdown, the result of a political standoff at the highest levels of U.S. government, canceled a federal training program for which Christensen’s INGCO International had been hired to provide translations. She’s tapping personal credit to pay vendors another $60,000 because the shutdown delayed federal payments on a separate contract. “I can’t go to my vendors and say, ‘Sorry, the government isn’t paying us, so we can’t pay you,’ ” she said.

That’s just one story in a nationwide cascade of consequences from the partial federal shutdown. Another one looms in less than two weeks as President Donald Trump and Congress struggle to strike a border security deal.

Some members of Congress, implicated in the inaction and eager to break a repetitive cycle of budget stalemate and political meltdown, say it’s time to make federal government shutdowns impossible.

“The truth is that what we’ve been doing in this country is no longer working,” Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig said last week at a U.S. Capitol news conference with a group of fellow Democratic House freshmen. The group, which included Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, presented its own plan to prevent shutdowns.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy $11 billion, $3 billion of which will never be recovered.

It forced thousands of furloughed federal workers to seek second jobs and visit food shelves, left hundreds of thousands of federal contractors unpaid and started to disrupt commercial air travel — all while broadcasting American political dysfunction to the entire world.

The proposal from Craig and Phillips would shift a shutdown’s financial pressures away from federal workers and services and onto those responsible for the underlying gridlock. In the event of future shutdown threats, the government would be funded at existing levels — and not be shut down — but members of Congress, the president and his top staff would not get paid until a new budget is passed and signed.

“We shouldn’t be using our federal employees for leverage,” said Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, who supports the measure.

It’s one of a handful of proposals from Democrats and Republicans in Washington to end federal shutdowns. Some Republicans favor a law that would maintain previous spending levels when federal budgets expire, but then decrease those levels by small, set increments the longer it takes to pass new budgets.

In a deeply polarized Congress, the move to end shutdowns has uncommon bipartisan backing. In recent days, both Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said publicly that they’d consider such legislation.

But the push could still be tricky: Some senior lawmakers in powerful posts, including Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, think it’s a bad idea.

“This makes everything an easy out. This is Congress all of a sudden saying, it’s OK if we don’t get our work done, we’ll just fix it later,” said McCollum, a Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee that manages $35 billion in annual federal spending.

The move to kill shutdowns is splitting Minnesota’s delegation, and not along party lines. On the opposite side of Craig, Phillips and Peterson are McCollum, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer.

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“I think people advancing these ideas, on both sides, are doing it in good faith,” Emmer said. “But I don’t think there’s a magic pill. We have to have elected people willing to expend political capital, take a risk and lead.”

Emmer said he doesn’t think it would be effective to suspend congressional and White House pay during a shutdown, since it would punish only some players. “It’s certainly not going to make a difference to the leader of this executive branch,” he said.

Sen. Tina Smith says she’s still studying the issue, but fellow Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar says she supports some type of legislation to end shutdowns. A spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Pete Stauber said he met last week with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss preventing shutdowns, but she didn’t provide further specifics.

Stauber also was one of a small minority of House Republicans last week to vote for a Democratic resolution “expressing … that government shutdowns are detrimental to the nation and should not occur.” It failed; such resolutions require a two-thirds majority of the House to pass.

A spokesman for Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn declined to share his views.

Pain can be productive

A range of D.C.-based federal budget watchdog groups disdain the idea of putting government spending on autopilot.

“We’ve never supported a government shutdown. They’re terrible. But they’re still a relatively infrequent phenomenon,” said Steve Ellis, executive vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “If you’re trying to remove the pain from a shutdown, then you’re inviting it to happen more often.”

Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, agreed that it’s bad federal policy to make government spending automatic in perpetuity. But given the climate in Washington, she said it may be the least bad option.

“We should never be governing by default,” MacGuineas said. “But when you step back into reality, where our leaders can’t get anything done and the toxicity between the two parties has rendered our government nonfunctioning — we need to do something.”

Even if Congress coalesces behind one of the plans, it’s unlikely it would be in place by Feb. 15, when federal funding is set to expire again.

Some Minnesota lawmakers are also working on proposals to recover from the last shutdown or to mitigate damage in future ones.

Smith is spearheading a Senate bill to restore back pay to federal contract workers who weren’t made whole when government reopened. Many are low-paid custodial and food service workers. Peterson is pushing legislation to maintain funding during a shutdown for a broader group of Department of Agriculture employees responsible for administering services to farmers.

Phillips said it makes more sense to expand that idea across the entire government.

“We came here trying to do things a little bit differently,” Phillips said of new members of Congress, pointing out that the recent shutdown was already underway when they were sworn into office.

Government shutdowns, he said, “are a mutually destructive tactic that should be eliminated from the political tool kit for all time.”