WILFORD: Why Do We Still Have Government Shutdowns?

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Andrew Wilford Contributor
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Congress is careening toward yet another government shutdown, with funding from a previously passed seven-week stopgap measure set to run out November 17. By this point, taxpayers are rightfully sick of the annual brinksmanship with the threat of a shutdown looming over every appropriations squabble. It raises the question: why is this the way Congress functions?

Shutdowns don’t benefit anyone. While it sounds like bringing the gears of the great money grinder that is the federal government to a temporary halt would at least save some taxpayer dollars, furloughed federal employees are eventually paid back for the hours they didn’t work after a funding deal is reached. In other words, taxpayers are just as on the hook as before, except the federal employees they pay don’t work and face financial disruption as they are forced to wait for their back pay.

Shutdowns also cost the broader economy. Air travel, tourism, medical research and many other sectors that rely on government services are greatly hampered by shutdowns. The last government shutdown, lasting 35 days in 2018, cost the economy an estimated $11 billion.  

For many years, conservatives placed their hopes in using the undesirability of a shutdown to force responsible spending reforms. A decade of that strategy has yielded nothing but losses from a conservative fiscal policy perspective, with the country practically in far worse fiscal shape than it ever has been

So if shutdowns don’t save taxpayer dollars, benefit anyone or even provide an effective incentive for Congress to fulfill its most basic obligation to fund the federal government, why do they remain on the table? 

I couldn’t tell you, and neither could Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, Democratic New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan and a bipartisan group of nine other senators who introduced the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act (PGSA) of 2023. The PGSA would have brought some badly needed common sense to the appropriations process while still creating an incentive for Congress to figure out a way to fund the government.

Under the PGSA, failure by Congress to agree on an appropriations package would not trigger a shutdown. Rather, automatic continuing resolutions would fill the gaps for 14-day periods, continuing to fund the government at prior funding levels. 

At the same time, Congress would be required to be in session for seven days a week, unable to consider anything but appropriations bills, unable to recess for more than 23 hours at a time and unable to use taxpayer dollars or campaign funds for travel expenses. Put another way, Congress would effectively sit in a room until they managed to figure out a way to fund the government.

Unfortunately, the PGSA won’t become federal law this year. Though 56 senators voted for it, including every Republican senator and nine Democrats and independents, the amendment failed to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to pass. Particularly given the bipartisan nature of the PGSA, it’s hard to imagine why so many Democratic senators lined up to defend government shutdowns. 

Congress badly needs to reform the budget process to maximize transparency, end rampant use of gimmicks and responsibly steward taxpayer dollars. Failure to pass a commonsense measure to end the wasteful process of government shutdowns is a missed opportunity to make a big step towards those goals.

Andrew Wilford is a senior policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to tax and fiscal policy research and education at all levels of government.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.