The deadline that keeps on giving

The deadline that keeps on giving
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The days of predictability in American public policy, such that financial markets and government program managers can plan thoughtfully and act accordingly, are long gone. The last time agency funding in the annual appropriations bills was passed on time was decades ago. Elected officials in Washington will not have the regular order this year by a long shot.

The president and leaders of Congress have an agreement over how much money should be appropriated for the agencies for fiscal 2020, which began more than a month ago. But they have not yet agreed on exactly how that money should be spent, which has a lot to do with the border wall with Mexico, and have not passed the actual appropriations bills.

The federal agencies have been running on temporary funding under a continuing resolution that extends spending authority, but at the levels of the previous year, which are significantly below the agreed amounts for 2020. Thus, our leaders agreed to have a party, but because of differences over the decorations, they have not yet tapped the keg. If that additional spending is to have any value, then that value is being lost day by day.


This of course is not the first time this has happened. Less than one year ago, the White House and Congress stumbled along with temporary funding until almost the holiday season, and then shuttered the federal government for more than a month. It was an ugly sight, with each side pointing the finger of blame at the other. At the end of the day, probably few minds were changed. People saw at the end of the shutdown the political responsibility that they had wanted to see when it began.

There are plenty of reasons why a shutdown is an unfortunate outcome. Government employees are required by law to stay home from work, but they are invariably paid at their regular rates for the lost time. Government workers are less productive before the shutdown because they have to divert their time to close down their operations. They are less productive when they get back to work because they must spend time gearing their operations back up. They of course accomplish nothing in between.

Many private sector workers like contractors who do business with the government can only stand in place while the government is closed. Their time is wasted, and the output they would have produced is lost forever. But many of those workers are not paid for their lost time, and they and their families are hurt. Meanwhile, government managers cannot execute their plans during the shutdown and cannot plan for the future because new funding is unknown. Whether you believe in government or not, you cannot look kindly on a shutdown. The wasted resources cannot be deployed to anything you favor, whether it is spending or tax cuts.

But there is one more reason to decry the flirtation with another shutdown today. Our economy is slowing down. The reasons are beside the point. A shutdown now, delaying government purchase payments and employee paychecks, would take even more speed off of the growth aircraft. The uncertain message on fiscal policy in Washington would not help at all. At some point, the plane could easily stall and fall into outright recession.

One might think that the lesson of the last government shutdown would have been learned through that tough experience. But we hear the same blistering rhetoric and the same blind arrogance all over again. He who compromises unfortunately loses. That that kind of bravado makes an ultimate honorable compromise that much more difficult to achieve.

It almost begs the obvious that our leaders must leave partisanship, and even impeachment, behind and do the business of the people. That is what our elected officials are here for. Yet there is no visible sign of that acceptance of responsibility. At a time of such disappointment in our institutions, this is a dispiriting episode that we really do not need.

Joseph Minarik is a senior vice president with the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board. He was the chief economist at the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton and coauthor of “Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity.”