Christmas shutdown: Why Washington let the government close

Why We Wrote This

The latest government shutdown hinges on a single issue: border wall funding. But as Congress grows more divided and compromise becomes increasingly scarce, lawmakers may increasingly turn to shutdowns as a negotiating tool.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
The National Archives in Washington is closed Dec. 22 due to a partial federal government shutdown. The Departments of State, Agriculture, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Interior are also affected by the shutdown.

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In many Republican leaders’ eyes, Friday was the GOP’s last chance to take the lead on budget negotiations before the start of the new session under a Democratic House. And by midweek, a deal seemed imminent. On Thursday, however, a day before temporary funding was set to run out, Mr. Trump again doubled down on one of his key campaign promises: the wall at the Mexican border. This latest stalemate follows a series of similar deadlocks in the budget process over the past three months and has resulted in a partial shutdown of the government. Failed budgetary negotiations have resulted in 19 government shutdowns since Congress introduced the modern budget process in 1976. The Departments of State, Agriculture, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Interior are all affected. About 420,000 or so federal workers who fall under “essential services” – mainly those involved with public safety, such as law enforcement, in-hospital care, and air traffic control – will work without pay until a spending bill is passed. More than 380,000 others – including about 80 percent of National Park Service employees – will be furloughed.

The government partially shut down at midnight Friday after Congress and the White House failed to agree on a spending package, the third shutdown this year. The sticking point: President Trump’s border wall.

Why did the government shut down?

In many Republican leaders’ eyes, Friday was the GOP’s last chance to take the lead on budget negotiations before the start of the new session under a Democratic House. And by midweek, a deal seemed imminent.

On Thursday, however, a day before temporary funding was set to run out, Mr. Trump again doubled down on one of his key campaign promises: the wall at the Mexican border. He announced he wasn’t going to sign any bill without $5 billion to begin construction. Democrats have opposed the plan from the start, saying that a physical wall is both too expensive and ineffective.

The House passed a bill that included $5 billion, as well as $8 billion for disaster relief. The Senate, however, didn’t have the votes Friday to pass a similar bill by the midnight deadline. So the government shut down.

This latest stalemate followed a series of similar snags in the budget process over the past three months. At the end of the government’s fiscal year on Sept. 30, Congress needs to pass annual appropriation to fund federal agencies and programs. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees each divide into 12 subcommittees that deal with different parts of the budget. Each chamber passes their own version of each bill, usually as part of a larger omnibus or "minibus" bill. A final bill is then approved by the House and Senate before going to the president to be signed into law.

This year, Congress was able to pass five of the 12 appropriations bills by the September deadline. Lawmakers then approved a temporary measure – called a continuing resolution, or CR – to fund the remaining seven at last year’s levels through Dec. 7, and then again through Dec. 21.

Who does this affect?

This is a partial shutdown, because Congress approved 70 percent of spending for the coming fiscal year in those first five appropriations bills. Those departments that are still on the hook include State, Agriculture, Justice, Transportation, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Interior.

About 420,000 or so federal workers who fall under “essential services” – mainly those involved with public safety, such as law enforcement, in-hospital care, and air traffic control – will still work without pay until a spending bill is passed. More than 380,000 others – including about 80 percent of National Park Service employees – will be furloughed. (The Senate passed a measure Saturday to ensure that these workers will receive back pay after an appropriations bill is passed. The House seems poised to follow suit.)

Core services such as Social Security, Medicare, and the military will still be funded, though some of their functions may be affected.

How many times has this happened before?

Failed budgetary negotiations have resulted in 19 government shutdowns since Congress introduced the modern budget process in 1976. Most of those, including the two that took place earlier this year, happened over very short periods – three days or less – or over the weekend, so government operations weren’t really affected.

There have been three major shutdowns in modern memory. The first two took place in the winter of 1995 to ’96, when a GOP-led Congress vowed to balance the federal budget through the Republican Party’s “Contract for America.” Then-President Bill Clinton agreed with Republicans about the end but not with the means – they wanted to cut social programs and repeal Mr. Clinton’s 1993 tax law. The conflict resulted in a shutdown from Nov. 14 through Nov. 20, 1995, then again from Dec. 16, 1995, until Jan. 5, 1996, for a total of 26 days.

The October 2013 shutdown, which lasted 16 days, happened after the House and Senate deadlocked over the Affordable Care Act. Republicans in the House secured enough votes to fold a one-year delay in the health-care mandate into the spending bill. The Democrat-led Senate refused to entertain the House provisions, while the House refused to go forward without them. Eventually both chambers managed to pass a resolution to fund the government for a few more months until they could resume the fight.

How long will this one last?

As of Monday there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Over the weekend, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said the chamber wouldn’t reconvene until Dec. 27, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Sunday that it’s possible the shutdown could go on until after the New Year.

A few things make this shutdown unusual. One is Trump, who in a televised meeting last week with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said he would be “proud” to shut down the government in defense of his border wall. Shutdowns are unpopular, and politicians typically try to shift the blame for running out of funding to the other party. The president later backed off, and as the deadline loomed lawmakers seemed close to cutting a deal that he would support.

But this conflict is also taking place at the end of a congressional session. Democrats officially take over the House on Jan. 3 for the 116th Congress, and some Republicans see this as their last real shot at getting funding approved for the wall. Far-right commentators, such Ann Coulter, as well as members of the Freedom Caucus, called the president out on his campaign pledge as negotiations were taking place. Shortly afterward, Trump declared he would not sign any bill that did not have $5 billion for the wall.

Not much has changed since, except that Democratic leaders released a joint statement saying that if the shutdown spills into January, “the new House Democratic majority will swiftly pass legislation to re-open government.”

How do we stop this from happening again?

While shutdowns can be and have been avoided through compromise and dealmaking, the stopgap measure is unlikely to go away entirely. Shutdowns are often the result of political disputes tacked onto the budget process – a negotiating tactic that lawmakers have used for decades. Usually they can find some sort of compromise to keep the government running. But as Congress grows more divided and it gets harder to compromise on bipartisan legislation, legislators will increasingly use the spending process – a core part of their job – as a vehicle to push tough bills through. That’s only going to become more likely as each party takes control of one chamber. 

“The fact that it’s the only train leaving makes it a very inviting target for all kinds of shenanigans,” says Patrick Griffin, who teaches a graduate course on the legislative process at American University. “There’s nowhere else to have these fights, so it becomes more and more attractive as less and less gets done.” 

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