How to keep government running when lawmakers fail to do their job

How to keep government running when lawmakers fail to do their job
© Stefani Reynolds

As the clock ticks toward the next possible government shutdown in two weeks, it is time to stop future shutdowns forever.  

The most recent government shutdown cost the economy $11 billion and lasted 35 days, during which time federal workers missed paychecks, contractors were out of work, government services were disrupted, businesses suffered, economic growth was damaged and consumer confidence took a big hit.

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Even worse was the loss of confidence in our political system. The shutdown was an international embarrassment and effectively a self-imposed disaster. 

It is not supposed to work this way. Every year, Congress and the president are supposed to agree on a set of appropriations bills to fund the government on time. Otherwise, they are supposed to pass a temporary “continuing resolution” extending current funding. Instead, we have now experienced three shutdowns or partial shutdowns in just the last six years.

Fortunately, solutions exist to end the practice. Political dysfunction does not have to produce chaos. While lawmakers should just do their job, we need a backstop when they don’t. 

A number of states have standing rules to keep programs and funding going if legislators and governors can’t reach agreement. Something similar could work at the federal level. 

The basic idea would be this: If Congress fails to pass appropriations on time, an automatic continuing resolution (auto-CR) kicks in to temporarily fund the government at around the prior year’s levels.

While the concept is simple, success is in the details.

A bill from Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanCost for last three government shutdowns estimated at billion The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (R-Ohio) would reduce spending levels by 1 percent every few months to encourage lawmakers to pursue appropriations rather than relying on the CR indefinitely. 

A different bill from Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerOvernight Defense: Trump hits Iranian central bank with sanctions | Trump meeting with Ukrainian leader at UN | Trump touts relationship with North Korea's Kim as 'best thing' for US Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg courts critics on Capitol Hill | Amazon makes climate pledge | Senate panel approves 0M for state election security Zuckerberg woos Washington critics during visit MORE (D-Va.) would automatically increase spending — other than for Congress and the White House — to keep pace with GDP growth.

Various auto-CR proposals have also been put forward by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Reps. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), Troy Balderson (R-Ohio), Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) and others.

Although these bills differ on the details, they all recognize that shutting down government is no way to govern. Legislators will need to find common ground, but the growing support for an auto-CR is a positive sign. 

An auto-CR isn’t the only way to prevent shutdowns. Another option would be to allow “fast track” status for very short-term continuing resolutions, making it easier to keep the government open while negotiations continue.

Other ideas from last year’s Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform could also improve the budget process in ways that would reduce the chance of shutdowns and crisis budgeting. 

Although the committee failed to pass any recommendations, it did advance the cause of reforming the budget process by engaging in good-faith bipartisan negotiations — and many of the members continue to work toward this goal. 

Auto-CRs might also create more space to address growing imbalances between autopilot benefits programs and their funding. On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office reported that federal deficits will pass the trillion-dollar mark as soon as next year, and that debt is projected to become increasingly unsustainable.

Excessive focus on the 30 percent of the budget funded through appropriations leaves less opportunity to focus on the largest and fastest growing programs and tax preferences. 

To be sure, an auto-CR is not a permanent solution that replaces governing and tough choices. It would, however, provide real benefits by sustaining government services and ending the politics of budget brinkmanship.

Maya MacGuineas is the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.