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David J. Brunell Headshot

A Shutdown to Shutdowns

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This might come off as radical, but let's dispense with governmental shutdowns. It's time to rewrite the paradigm of having Congress work together -- both within itself and with the president -- to pass a budget, that one tiny matter that keeps our government running. We assume we have to pass a new budget every so often to keep things going. It's time to scrap that idea.

As Clare Malone recently wrote in The American Prospect, we last had a "real budget" in 1997, and since then we've primarily relied on continuing resolutions to fund the government. (Check out Chris Cillizza's piece in his blog The Fix for a primer on continuing resolutions.) For our purposes, it's good enough to know that a continuing resolution is actually just what it sounds like: a budget-type bill that allows for funding at current levels without debate. But the problem is that the Congress still has to agree to pass a continuing resolution, and the president still has to sign the bill into law. And when they don't pass a continuing resolution, we have a shutdown.

Of course there's the question of why it's bad, which is probably stuff you've heard before if you're reading this. If not, you should check out Adam Goldberg's post to learn why government shutdowns are so terrible. Here are a few reasons Goldberg mentions: More than 800,000 more people are without paychecks (that's more than Governor Rick Scott promised to Floridians over seven years!); environmental, nutrition, and health programs on hiatus; devastation to the markets, and of course, no pandas. There's also the matter of shutdowns worsening the budget deficit.

So here's the proposal: amend the Constitution to have a continuing resolution be the default. Rather than have the government shut down when Congress can't agree (on how) to fund the government, have the government automatically funded at current levels unless and until a new budget is passed. This will end the threat of a shutdown and the gamesmanship that goes along with it. It will incentivize compromise to achieve new goals, whether budget increases or cuts, and deter intransigence by making it ineffectual.

Let's address a somewhat related matter: congressional pay during a shutdown. There's some talk about Congress going without pay while the government shuts down. It's a fantastic idea, but it runs into some problems with the Constitution. That might be constitutional, but it might not. The 27th Amendment prohibits the current Congress from "varying" its salary. Generally, that's a swell idea -- after all, it keeps Congress from giving itself a raise! But the language doesn't say "increase"; it says "vary." There's some risk saying "no work, no pay" would count as a variance, and that just wouldn't do. So in my proposed amendment, maybe we'll tweak that language too. But then, we won't have to worry about not having a budget, will we?