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Another shutdown accomplishes nothing

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy talks to reporters as Congress returns to work in crisis mode days before a government shutdown. McCarthy faces an insurgency from hard-Right Republicans eager to slash spending even if it means closing federal offices to millions of Americans (Photograph by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

If the baseline requirement of a functional government is keeping the lights on, the United States doesn’t have much of a government. With House Republicans unable to pass essential spending Bills, yet another federal shutdown appears imminent. It would be the 21st funding lapse since the modern budget process was enacted.

Notionally, the fight this time is about fiscal restraint. As the deadline nears to pass the 12 appropriations Bills needed to fund the Government next year, negotiations have stalled. A group of House Republicans is committed to opposing even a temporary extension of existing funding, demanding steep spending cuts and a series of unrelated concessions — new border-security measures, reduced military aid to Ukraine, an end to “the Left’s cancerous woke policies in the Pentagon” — that stand no chance of passing the Democratic Senate. Unless House Speaker Kevin McCarthy can deliver a viable deal, funding will expire at midnight on Saturday.

What’s left to say about this recurrent charade?

One fact that bears repeating is that shutdowns are harmful. With hundreds of thousands of government workers likely to be furloughed — and their paycheques suspended — services for seniors and veterans could be impeded, payments to contractors and vendors deferred, parks and museums shut, health and safety inspections curtailed, scientific research halted, federal investigations tabled, key economic data releases postponed, loans to small businesses cut off, and more. Crucial regulatory functions could be inhibited across the Government.

Far from modelling budgetary discipline, these disruptions impose significant costs. An analysis by the Office of Management and Budget found that a shutdown in 2013 led to as much as $6 billion in lost economic output and $2 billion in added government costs over just 16 days. A 2019 Senate staff report found that the past three funding lapses resulted in 56,938 staff-years of lost work at federal agencies. This year’s version could prove costlier still: each week of a shutdown would cut 0.2 percentage points from quarterly gross domestic product, according to Bloomberg chief US economist Anna Wong.

That is especially galling given that the existing impasse is entirely pointless. Without control of the Senate or the White House — and with only a narrow majority in the House — Republicans have nearly no leverage. Yet fringe conservatives have stuck to their outlandish demands, even as internal dissent and confusion has weakened their hand at every turn. Last Thursday, the disorder appeared to culminate as two hardliners revolted, a defence-spending Bill was unexpectedly blocked and McCarthy simply sent everyone home for the weekend. (“It’s a clown show,” said Republican representative Mike Lawler, accurately. “You keep running lunatics, you’re going to be in this position.”)

Absent serious reform to the federal budget process — a marvel of waste, dysfunction and arcane complexity — shutdowns are likely to continue. Congress has successfully navigated this procedure on deadline only four times since 1977. A reformed approach that streamlined the process, eliminated gimmickry and automated short-term extensions whenever funding expired would be progress. Longer-term, a biennial schedule aligned with election cycles — so that each new Congress need pass only one budget for its full term — should be on the table.

For now, a bipartisan deal to keep the doors open must be the priority. In no other country does the Government routinely incapacitate itself for the sake of political stunts. This year’s shutdown, if indeed it comes, should be the last.

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Published September 27, 2023 at 7:57 am (Updated September 27, 2023 at 7:12 am)

Another shutdown accomplishes nothing

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