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How Congress Can Do Away With Spendy Government Shutdown Theater For Good

A new bill would take shutdown crisis scenarios off the table for good by automatically maintaining current spending levels during budget stalemates until the enactment of new appropriations legislation.


The routine threat, and occasional occurrence, of federal government shutdowns has not served anyone well. 

The process ends up providing temporary disruption of federal government functions that are nonetheless significant for those affected, including everything from border security to medical research. Even the threat of shutdowns increases costs and wastes the effort of having to develop contingency plans.

Shutdown politics almost always results in a last-minute budget-busting “omnibus” bill that is crafted in secret with little detail available to the public, or even many lawmakers, until shortly before it receives a vote.

We’re always driven to these crisis situations by partisan brinkmanship. Both sides claim to have leverage, but the reality is the ticking clock favors the people loading up massive bills with more spending, more crony carve-outs, and more junk they know their colleagues are never going to read. If anything, the perennial shutdown threats have given them cover to operate with impunity.

Americans deserve better. A group of legislators has offered a better path forward with the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act (PGSA). Unfortunately, the Senate has thus far failed to act. The House should waste no time passing this legislation and return it to the Senate to correct its mistake. 

The PGSA would take shutdown crisis scenarios off the table for good by automatically maintaining current spending levels during budget stalemates until the enactment of new appropriations legislation. 

It would also encourage Congress to pass appropriations bills by keeping both chambers in session every day, barring the use of official or campaign funds to leave the Washington, D.C., area, and setting a high bar to consider other legislation until the enactment of all appropriations bills is completed.

The legislation is authored by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., as well as Reps. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, and Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif.

There’s much to like in this bill and little to draw opposition from most citizens. By maintaining current spending levels as Congress hashes out next year’s appropriations, the legislation will ultimately provide more efficient spending than the last-minute, budget-busting spendathon that occurs when a government shutdown is followed by a bloated omnibus bill.

The legislation will also preserve existing government functions as new spending bills are debated for the coming fiscal year.

States Use This Approach

This is not a controversial idea. Instead, it is one proven viable at the state level. Several states have provisions that require automatic continuing resolutions when a state budget agreement is not reached prior to the end of the current budget year. North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island have comprehensive continuing-resolution laws, while partial measures exist in Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.

That list includes both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning states.

The process proposed by the PGSA would give more federal lawmakers input into the budget process, especially compared to the select few involved in drafting omnibus measures. That should appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike.

Shutdowns Increase Spending

The simple fact is that the government shutdown theater we see each year in Washington has done nothing to rein in spending or improve government. In fact, just the opposite. The result is typically an omnibus bill that is more than 1,000 pages long, loaded with special interest giveaways, and voted on before anyone has a chance to read it. Lawmakers aren’t voting for good policy; they’re voting to avoid a shutdown. 

It’s a different story in states with automatic continuing resolutions. In North Carolina, automatic continuing resolutions allowed state lawmakers to ultimately pass a state budget that included tax cuts and universal school choice this year.

When something is obviously broken, you need to fix it. As long as the threat of a government shutdown looms, we’ll keep repeating this insane cycle. But there’s no reason to continue governing crisis to crisis. It’s time for Washington to get back to passing policy on the merits, not because it’s the only way to sidestep a crisis. 

The PGSA would promote a much better system for federal budgeting. Americans should encourage their congressional lawmakers to support it — and the House should heed that encouragement by passing the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act immediately. 

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