With the nation’s capital fixated on tense negotiations over funding the federal government, apocalyptic warnings over a possible shutdown are filling headlines.
Time is “running short,” we’re in “crisis mode,” and the House and Senate are on a “collision course,” to quote just a few prominent news outlets.
But for the 99% of Americans who live far from the swamp, it’s not always clear how a government shutdown would affect day-to-day life. Here are some important points about how shutdowns work—and how Washington makes them worse.
1) Many Functions Continue Despite Shutdown
Even if there is a funding lapse, federal activities (and employees) deemed “essential” will continue to draw from the national treasury. Examples include national security, border patrol, law enforcement, disaster response, and more.
In addition, funding for many benefits (such as Social Security) along with some agencies (such as the Postal Service) are independent of the annual spending process.
A lapse of under two weeks would have even less effect since federal employees would get their paychecks on time. However, longer shutdowns are typically coupled with providing back pay to bureaucrats and congressional staffers.
Accordingly, the real-world effect of a shutdown would be much less than the apocalyptic rhetoric that often characterizes press coverage of the issue.
2) Shutdowns Reflect Failure to Budget
The federal government’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30.
If Congress fails to pass the annual set of spending bills (referred to as appropriations) by the end of September, the government’s ability to spend becomes limited due to important legal safeguards against executive agencies spending without legislative approval.
In theory, the annual budget process looks like this:
- By early February, the president delivers a budget proposal to Congress. This provides information and recommendations on the full spectrum of federal activity.
- By mid-April, Congress produces a budget resolution to establish spending guidelines.
- Over the late spring and summer, appropriations committees draft 12 pieces of legislation to provide spending allowances for federal agencies, with varying degrees of specificity.
- By Sept. 30, Congress passes the spending bills.
Of course, it seldom works that way. Congress hasn’t completed the process on time since 1997. With Republicans and Democrats divided over the proper size and scope of the federal government, negotiations over both overall spending levels and item-by-item authorizations usually drag out well past the Sept. 30 deadline.
However, the spending process is difficult to complete on time even when one party controls both Congress and the White House. The unchecked growth of the federal government means legislators haggle over core priorities, such as national defense—and special-interest handouts, such as maple syrup subsidies.
3) Presidents Can Make Shutdowns Worse
A classic example of the swamp in action is what’s referred to as “Washington Monument Syndrome,” where a government will make a spending cut or funding lapse as painful as possible by closing down low-cost, highly symbolic things.
The Obama administration implemented this strategy in 2013 by blocking access to open-air public facilities, such as the World War II Memorial, even though keeping such areas closed and guarded was more expensive than normal operations.
While there’s no indication as to how President Joe Biden plans to handle a potential government shutdown, the administration’s radical approach to issue after issue doesn’t bode well.
4) Reducing Deficits, Impact of Shutdowns
Many things the federal government manages are important and necessary. However, some of these (such as the air-traffic control system and infrastructure programs) can and should be devolved to state and local governments, civil society, and private entities.
Shrinking the endless list of federal responsibilities would make the country less vulnerable to congressional dysfunction. (If polls are any indication, the American public considers Congress to be plenty dysfunctional.)
Also, in most cases, pulling those activities from the swamp would yield budgetary savings. With the national debt at $33.1 trillion due in large part to rampant waste and fraud, unloading federal liabilities is long overdue.
House Republicans have put forward spending bills and a budget resolution that would move things in the right direction, and there is debate within the GOP caucus over whether to make the legislation even stronger.
Following a wildly destructive spending spree that has pushed the country down the road to bankruptcy and hyperinflation, that’s a debate worth having.
Originally published by Fox News
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