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Federal Government Shutdown: A Possible Long-Term Solution Worth Considering

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Stephen R. Rolandi
February 16, 2019

The failure of President Trump and Congress to reach an agreement over border security and related issues created the recent 35-day federal shutdown. This, as well as the prospect of another government shutdown, prompted me recently to think about a current legislative proposal now before Congress that might prevent future impasses. This shutdown, the longest in American history, impacted approximately 800,000 federal employees and their families, and cost the American economy at least $3 billion.   

The federal government has not had an annual proper budget appropriation–and by that I mean an enacted budget consisting of 12 appropriation bills for a full year period–since President George W. Bush’s administration in 2007-2008. Annual budgets were not passed by Congress during the Obama administration. In fairness to President Obama, he had to deal with a budget prepared by his predecessor during the 2008 Great Recession during his first year in office. He also had to contend with a change in majority control of both houses of Congress.

 Since then, Congress has resorted to continuing resolutions to finance government operations, and there are many institutional and political reasons for this occurrence. We should also note that many previous full-year federal budgets were not truly balanced, which at the state, county and local levels of government are required by state constitutions and statute.

Federal agencies and programs rely on annual funding appropriations passed by Congress and then approved by the President. By law, the federal fiscal year begins on October 1 every year. The operating principle is that a budget appropriation needs to be in place by the start of that fiscal year so that agencies have the legal authority to incur spending and continue operations.

When the current 2019 federal fiscal year began on October 1, Congress enacted only five of 12 appropriation bills for 2019. This left seven appropriation bills covering several federal departments and agencies not passed and relying on a continuing resolution (CR). When that deadline passed on December 21, 2018 without a newly enacted CR,  a partial shutdown ensued that lasted until January 25, 2019. (As I write this article, it appears that Congress will pass a new CR for the President’s signature. This will extend funding through the end of the current fiscal year, September 30, 2019. Hopefully, this CR will be signed into law by the President).

United States Republican Senator Rob Portman, who represents Ohio, introduced legislation in the Senate entitled the End Government Shutdowns Act. This piece of legislation was recently re-introduced in the current session of Congress.   

Senator Portman’s previous federal experience included service as OMB Budget Director, United States Trade Representative, and member of the House of Representatives from Ohio, in addition to senior positions in the administration of the late President George H.W. Bush.

The stated purpose of Senator Portman’s bill is to permanently prevent the federal government from having continuous shutdowns, ensuring that essential government services are not disrupted. It also aims to protect taxpayers from negative impacts. His bill currently has 28 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester.

The proposed legislation would create an automatic continuing spending resolution for any regular appropriations bill or existing CR, which would keep the federal government open for business when budget negotiations falter before key spending deadlines occur. The incentive to make such an automatic CR occur is that if such a budget resolution were not passed within a specified period of time, for instance 120 days, automatic 1 percent funding reductions in current appropriations would take place. A companion piece of legislation in the House of Representatives was also introduced by Republican Ohio Representative Anthony Balderson and Democratic New Jersey Representative Jeff Van Drew.

It should be noted that Senator Portman’s bill was previously introduced in several previous Congresses, but to no avail. Last year, the entire Senate seemed receptive to such a measure, but the Senate leadership was reluctant to bring the bill up for a full vote.  In the current climate, the public has been critical of both Congress and the Executive branch. Next year, more Republican Senate incumbents than Democratic incumbents are up for re-election. This may be a more opportune time for Senator Portman’s legislation.  

I  believe that Senator Portman’s proposal deserves serious consideration. Ultimately, whether Senator Portman’s proposal becomes law depends on the political will at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Time will tell.

Author: Stephen R. Rolandi retired in 2015 after serving with the State and City of New York. He holds BA and MPA degrees from New York University. He ais an adjunct professor of public administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Pace University. He is currently President of ASPA’s New York Metropolitan Chapter and served several terms on ASPA’s National Council. You can reach him at: [email protected] or [email protected].

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