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Good Grief! How Did We End Up on the Verge of Another Government Shutdown?

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington

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It’s almost unbelievable that only 18 years after the disastrous shutdown of 1995, the federal government is on the brink of another shutdown. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) presented the House floor on Saturday with the legislation that sealed the country’s fate—legislation that he and his party’s top leadership argued against for weeks.

Rep. Rogers, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), however, argued that shutting down the government over Obamacare would not go down well with the American people. In fact, Speaker Boehner went so far as to order a poll during the August congressional recess in an attempt to drive home the disastrous consequences of the strategy being pushed by the most extreme elements of the Republican Conference.

But all of that failed. The inmates were clearly in charge of the institution, and Rep. Rogers was left with the task of making the motion for the House to consider the flawed product that had been crafted largely by the backbenchers in his party. The chairman stoically sought recognition to make his motion, but he then proceeded to use his debate time more to lecture the faction in the party that had put him in this unfortunate position than to argue the substance of the bill he was asking the House to adopt.

He also noted the addition of the two poison-pill amendments. One would attempt to delay the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by one year, and the other would repeal one of the taxes that pays for it. But he named the amendments without making any comments regarding the merits of either. He then noted, “It’s unfortunate that yet again we are in this situation facing another shutdown showdown with no solution to our many fiscal problems in sight.”

Rep. Rogers concluded that he hopes his colleagues will realize that funding the government is one of those essential duties. He warned:

With the debt ceiling looming, a fragile economy in recovery, and the threat of additional, draconian sequestration cuts that will gut our national defense, it’s essential that we come together to find common ground. … Failure on these crucial issues could lead to disastrous results for our people and our nation for years to come.

But most Americans don’t understand the fight that is taking place, or even what the continuing resolution—the legislative vehicle at the center of this fight—really is or why Congress is considering it.

Most of the federal government’s daily activities are funded through annual appropriations measures. Each house of Congress is supposed to produce 12 separate appropriations bills each year, with each of those bills funding separate portions of the government. Ideally, Congress starts work each year in January as the president is preparing his proposed budget, prepares bills for consideration by each of the two houses in the spring, and reaches a compromise on competing versions of the same legislation by mid-September after each of the 12 bills has been debated and approved in its respective chamber.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way most years. About half of the bills usually make it through, but there are normally another five to seven bills that are stuck because of strong disagreements over certain provisions. When the new fiscal year begins on October 1, Congress must put in place a stopgap measure to continue funding for those departments and agencies for which no regular appropriations measures have been enacted. This gives Congress time to work out its differences and put together the remaining bills after the new fiscal year has already started.

This stopgap legislation is known as a continuing resolution, and it does just what the term implies: it continues activities of unfunded departments and agencies for a specific period of time until regular appropriations measures can be agreed upon. The very nature of a continuing resolution is to provide the least controversial and most politically neutral means of reaching common ground between two or more strongly held viewpoints in hopes that the additional weeks of funding provided by the continuing resolution will provide the time needed for compromise. Adding legislative provisions that are outside the jurisdiction of the appropriations committees has always been a surefire formula for deadlock.

Further demonstrating House Republicans’ disarray on the question of sustaining needed government activities, the need for such a resolution was not driven by a disagreement between the House and Senate on spending levels. Rather, it was internal strife in the House Republican Conference that forced the body to abandon consideration of 8 of 12 appropriations measures that Congress is obliged to pass each year.

Prior to the August congressional recess, the House abruptly pulled the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill because there were insufficient Republican votes to pass it. As Rep. Rogers noted at that time:

I am extremely disappointed with the decision to pull the bill from the House calendar today. The prospects for passing this bill in September are bleak at best, given the vote count on passage that was apparent this afternoon. With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago.

The Senate began floor debate on the same bill in early August but also failed to proceed to final passage when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pressured Senate Republicans who had voted in committee to send the legislation to the floor to reverse themselves and oppose a motion allowing a final vote.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that many House Republicans do not find it awkward to send tens of thousands of federal employees home without pay, deny countless services to their constituents, and degrade confidence in the competency of the U.S. government, simply because of a dispute on government funding that their party and legislative body largely failed to take a position on. Rather than exhibit willingness to provide a little more flexibility in light of that rather severe omission, they are insisting on injecting into the legislation an issue that is far more controversial, has nothing to do with the annual funding of government agencies, and is in the jurisdiction of a number of major House committees, none of which include the Appropriations Committee.

The backbenchers that have engineered this train wreck may not be embarrassed by their handiwork, but party veterans clearly want no part of it. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the Saturday night debate—which may prove to be one of the most momentous in the modern history of the Republican Party—was the total absence of party leadership. Rep. Rogers was forced to take the floor because, to his obvious discomfort, the legislation had his name on it. But Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and Majority Whip McCarthy were all missing in action. They had done their best to protect their party from this unfolding debacle. They were happy to give the limelight to those who somehow thought this was a good idea.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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