Another government shutdown is looming. How did we get here?
white dome building during night time
Photo by Sogand Gh on Unsplash

Another government shutdown is looming. How did we get here?

While Americans nationwide prepare for the holidays, members of the House and Senate are stuck in Washington dealing with a looming government shutdown that will begin Friday should the current funding laws expire.

We’ve talked before about some of the options Congress is considering to avoid a shutdown, from an all-in-one omnibus package, to a short-term continuing resolution that will set up another funding fight a few months from now.

But really, the better question is: “Why do these shutdown crises keep happening?”

Simply put, Congress can’t get its act in gear.

Each year Congress is required by law to pass 12 appropriations bills that cover the funding for all the different areas of the federal government, from defense to agriculture. And, importantly, they’re required to pass these spending bills by the end of the fiscal year – September 30th.

Omnibus: How the U.S. Congress passes the budget Congress uses the omnibus spending bill to package together many smaller ordinary appropriations bills into one larger bill that ...

But Congress has passed its spending bills on time only four times since 1952, and not at all since 1997. Filling in the gaps have been numerous short-term funding bills – called continuing resolutions – that keep the government funded at current levels, regardless of the actual needs of the government.

There were nearly 50 short-term funding bills passed between fiscal years 2010 and 2022 alone.

That creates real headaches for federal agencies, which are increasingly forced to operate without really knowing how much money they have to spend.

Part of the culprit is a convoluted and lengthy appropriations process, and there’s long been bipartisan efforts to reform that process to make it run smoother.

But part of the problem, some say, is the polarization in our politics. Because spending bills are quintessential ‘must-pass’ legislation, they’ve increasingly become opportunities for extremes on both sides to cause mischief.

During the 2018-2019 federal shutdown, the longest in history, federal budget expert Stan Collender told USA Today:

“We thought in ’95 and ’96, (when) we had two shutdowns, that you’d never see them again because the political results were so bad for Republicans. Now it’s kind of become standard operating procedure.That’s in part because compromise on both sides is considered ‘collaborating with the enemy.’”

History could be repeating itself again. In an interview Sunday, Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) argued against working on a bipartisan spending agreement before the shutdown: “We are 28 days away from Republicans having the gavel. We would be stronger in every negotiation. So any Republican that is out there trying to work with them, is wrong.”

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