Shutdowns: The New Norm

Charles Cooper

Americans should be concerned over the near-term impacts of the ongoing, historic partial government shutdown, but its dynamics have long-term implications.

Americans should be concerned over the near-term impacts of the ongoing, historic partial government shutdown, but its dynamics have long-term implications (including longer, more frequent shutdowns) with potential to be significantly more dangerous to our funding process and less understood broadly.

Justifiably, there is considerable attention being paid to the impact the shutdown is having on 800,000 federal employees and the federal agencies they work for – as well as the beneficiaries of the many programs that have remained unfunded for three weeks. To date, there hasn’t been much progress in resolving the differences between Democrats and the White House. In fact, public positioning of both sides suggests that they have solidified their positions and are both comfortable – for now. There are three scenarios that resolve the current shutdown:

  • Pressures mount on both sides (or internally between congressional Republicans and the White House), creating greater momentum and movement towards a solution.
  • Both sides feel as though they can walk away with a “win” – even if it is more messaging than policy – leading the shutdown to an end.
  • The President re-opens the government and seeks to build the wall by declaring an emergency, which would likely face scrutiny in the courts and within Congress but provides an effective end to the shutdown.

I am confident that one of these three solutions will eventually take shape, but the longer-term implications of this shutdown and the trends it has created, unfortunately, will not go away when the government re-opens. Here are dangerous trends to watch that will drive more shutdowns in the future:

  • Polarized politics are driving more extreme decision-making: This shutdown highlights the politics that are, in part, driving both sides away from solutions. Instead of prioritizing the end of the shutdown, both sides are looking for a “win” and one that is increasingly difficult to find in the polarizing landscape of modern politics.
  • There is less urgency to reach solutions: There seems to be considerably less urgency to resolve this shutdown than previous shutdowns. Whether it’s correct or not, policymakers view the shutdown with less policy and political risk now than before, and it’s a trend that will likely provide greater flexibility in the future to keep a shutdown in place and not be forced to run to the negotiating table.
  • Declining pressure points: Pressures that generally drive negotiators towards a solution have been – to some degree – mitigated. National Parks, for example, have remained open. When SNAP benefits and tax returns were in jeopardy of going away, real pressure began to build; once the White House was perceived to have “fixed” those issues, the shutdown was seemingly less painful. If Administrations of the future can simply mitigate existing pressures, there may not be many reasons to resolve a future shutdown.
  • “Must Pass” bills do not need to pass: Spending bills have become less “must pass” than ever before. There was a time when spending bills (or a continuing resolution) were easier to advance and less leveraged for other unresolvable issues. They have now taken the path of debt limit increases, to some degree, where they become the venue for broader debates and the deadlines are less of a concern.

Congress will surely look at the evolving trends around shutdowns and think through budget reforms that could prevent normalizing them. Unfortunately, those reforms are unlikely to get very far and, without a change in the landscape or voter impact, our funding process could be on a fairly destructive path.