Careening from one budget crisis to another is no way to govern

Careening from one budget crisis to another is no way to govern
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The on-again, off-again threat of a government shutdown and the repeated reliance on temporary funding resolutions to keep federal agencies afloat — a political drama we are now once again experiencing— represents a huge disservice to the American people.

Careening from one budget crisis to another has eroded the capabilities of our government on everything from national defense to the delivery of social services and unfortunately has become the norm rather than the exception.


The current stalemate has left the children’s health program in limbo, held up disaster relief and immigration enforcement funding, placed constraints on our military services and created headaches for agencies across the government. In the long run, Congress is contributing to a waste of taxpayer dollars. 


Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, for example, told a U.S. Naval Institute forum on Dec. 4 that his service has wasted $4 billion since 2011 because of continued budget ambiguity that has stalled new acquisition programs, resulting in deferred maintenance, hindered troop readiness and caused a wide range of operational inefficiencies.

“We have put $4 billion in a trash can, poured lighter fluid on it and burned it,” Spencer said. “Four billion is enough to buy a squadron of F-35s, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, 3,000 Harpoon missiles.

"It’s enough money to buy us additional capacity that we need. Instead, it’s lost because of inefficiency in the ways of the continuing resolution," Spencer said.

Current and former federal executives have said the inability of Congress to meet annual funding deadlines and instead turn to short-term spending bills has hampered efforts to plan and prudently manage their agencies.

Temporary funding has delayed private-sector contracts for a range of services and purchases, including information technology upgrades and plans to protect federal computer systems from cyberattacks. It has made it impossible to terminate unnecessary activities, stalled critical hiring decisions, resulted in lost productivity, delayed new projects and caused lapses in the delivery of grants to states and localities.

Members of Congress often rail against the inefficiency in government, but seldom take responsibility for being part of the problem. When Congress fails to fulfill even its basic constitutional responsibility to appropriate money for our government, the result is usually finger-pointing, not problem-solving — and it comes quite literally at the expense of the American people.   

President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE tweeted in May that, “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ fix mess,” but is likely learning that brinkmanship around the budget contributes to the very mess against which he campaigned.

It is important that his appointees, like Secretary Spencer, are speaking out and quantifying the colossal waste that results from temporary funding measures. No one benefits when government operations are disrupted, not the public and not our elected leaders.

In the past decade, Congress has resorted to more than three dozen interim funding measures to keep government agencies running, with those organizations having to scramble to meet their obligations. 

Since 1995, there have been two significant partial government shutdowns, one that lasted 21 days from Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996, and a 16-day closure that occurred in October 2013. 

During the 2013 event, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention curtailed its monitoring of disease outbreaks, reviews of veterans’ disability applications virtually came to a halt, National Parks closed, new drug approvals were delayed, environmental inspections stopped, small businesses couldn’t get federal loan approvals, seriously ill patients were denied access to National Institutes of Health clinical trials and 850,000 federal workers were furloughed

In a new report, S&P Global analysts said a shutdown would cost the economy about $6.5 billion a week, and if lasting for an extended period of time, could possibly curtail economic momentum. 

There are always disagreements about policy priorities, funding levels and the role of government, but Congress has routinely taken the process to the extreme, failing to fulfill one of its primary leadership responsibilities. This has contributed to the erosion of public trust in government and served to undermine the central institution of our democracy.

It is time to put the threat of a shutdown where it belongs, back in the category of the unthinkable, and to make short-term funding resolutions the exception rather than the rule.

It is also time to consider biennial budget and appropriations processes to give agencies a higher degree of certainty. Most of all, it is time for our elected representatives to do their jobs.

Max Stier is president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which aims to enhance government productivity and efficiency.