The recent partial government shutdown is proof that the federal budget process is broken. And while a permanent, lasting fix to the budget process is needed, the short-term solution is to adopt what many in Congress are calling for: an automatic continuing resolution to keep the government funded and prevent future shutdowns. Only a mechanism such as this will address the reality of what Washington has become and protect elected officials from themselves.
There are three truths when it comes to federal spending. The first is that the government can only spend money when it has statutory authority to do so. No law, no authority to spend, means a government shutdown. About 75-80 percent of federal spending is effectively on autopilot through entitlements or long-term contracts; this spending is authorized no matter what Congress does. Partial government shutdowns happen because of snafus over the remainder of federal spending that requires annual approval by Congress and the president.
The second truth is that budgets reflect political choices. They are about the allocation of values via dollars. Theory might say that budgets are simply about financing government programs, making opportunity cost-decisions on use of tax dollars, planning and program accountability, or establishing economic priorities. The reality is that all of these functions presuppose political choices. At one time, there was significantly more consensus in Washington about the purpose of government and how to spend money, making budget choices easier, but even then there were major disagreements.
The third truth is that the history of U.S. politics can be told through budgeting, and it tells us that no process will work if there is fundamental disagreement over taxes and spending priorities. Prior to World War I there was no U.S. budget — when money was need, it was allocated. But fighting a major war proved this haphazard process did not work well. The 1921 Budget Act was the first effort to create a budget process for the U.S. government. It established congressional budget committees to centralize budgetary process, and created the Bureau of the Budget (later the Office of Management and Budget) in the executive branch to bring some order to federal spending.
The budget act helped, but increased spending starting during the New Deal. Then World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars led to a dramatic explosion of federal spending. But something else happened while this spending increased: the philosophy and view about the role of the federal government changed.
By the time Richard Nixon became president in 1969, a major dispute began to emerge, contesting federal government priorities. Nixon refused to spend money allocated by Congress, leading to the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act. This act, which took effect in 1976, is the basis of modern U.S. budgeting. It created the Congressional Budget Office, dates for budget passage and a presidential budget.
But it, too, failed. Since 1976, only four budgets passed on time (the last one in 1997). Mostly, the federal government operates on continuing resolutions. Since 1976, there have been 20 budget or funding gaps; some have resulted in government shutdowns. But since then, there have been several gimmicks to try to fix the budget process, including the Gramm-Rudman Hollings Act of 1985, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and giving the president a line-item veto. All failed to bring budgetary discipline to the government because these fixes cannot work when there is no political agreement on spending priorities.
The most recent government shutdown proves the political breakdown in Washington and how the process crafted in the 1974 budget act needs to change to reflect an era of highly partisan politics.
So what is the solution? Political polarization is not going away and there is no sign that a permanent fix is forthcoming. But there is at least one partial solution: enact into law an automatic continuing resolution procedure that would authorize funding for the government to stay open even if no budget or ordinary continuing legislation is adopted. In Minnesota, a state that has had three partial shutdowns since 2001, I have advocated this as a solution for 15 years, but to no avail. It would be a law similar to one that exists in Wisconsin.
At the very least, an automatic continuing resolution would keep the government open, preventing partial shutdowns from occurring and keeping paychecks on track for employees. Such a proposal does not solve the dissensus and polarization in Washington, but it is a first step to protecting public officials from their own polarization and preventing a problem that may come again as soon as Feb. 15.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @ProfDSchultz.