Once again, a government shutdown is conceivable. This occasioned some hurried voting Thursday and a meeting between President Trump and congressional leaders. To understand how we got here, and what might happen next, I sat down with two experts, Sarah Binder of George Washington University and the Brookings Institution and Molly Reynolds of Brookings.
John: So is the government going to shut down? Am I going to be able to take my kids to the National Zoo?
Molly: Yes, you can take your kids to the zoo — although winter is coming to D.C. this weekend.
John: Molly, a little cold weather is not going to keep us away from Quito, the Andean bear.
Molly: Well, here’s a bit of good news, then. Yesterday, the House passed a short-term bill to keep the government open for two weeks. Then, in a display of how quickly it can get its act together when it wants to, the Senate passed the bill within hours.
John: Fun fact: Andean bears build nests in trees. But seriously, what was this Friday deadline that Congress was rushing to meet?
Sarah: The government’s fiscal year started on Oct. 1. That’s the legal deadline for Congress and the president to have enacted into law the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government’s discretionary programs. “Discretionary” programs — like running the national parks — have to be funded anew every fiscal year. Funding for “entitlement” or “mandatory” programs — like Social Security — is written into the law and so doesn’t have to be funded with annual appropriations.
Back in September, congressional leaders went to the White House. The leaders sat down with the president to work out a short-term spending bill known as a “continuing resolution” (CR). CRs continue funding at the previous year’s level until a specified date to buy lawmakers time to finish writing the spending bills.
Back in September, the president struck a deal with “Chuck and Nancy” for a three-month CR — a deal that expires today, Dec. 8. Trump struck the deal with the Democratic leaders, cutting out the GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan who were sitting right there — their mouths no doubt agape because they wanted to punt everything into 2018 with a much longer CR.
During the three months, Congress was supposed to finish the 12 spending bills. But that didn’t happen because the parties couldn’t agree on how much the government should spend this fiscal year. Plus Republicans diverted their attention to tax cuts, and the president diverted everyone’s attention to questions like whether NFL players should kneel during the playing of the national anthem. So that’s why Congress passed another short-term CR this week, which the president will sign into law.
The new CR expires Dec. 22, which means that Congress just gave itself a two-week extension to get a spending deal done for the rest of the fiscal year.
By the way, speaking of animals: do you know the difference between grazing and browsing? Like, why do we “browse” the shelves in the library rather than “graze” them?
John: Speaking of grazing, 95 percent of the diet of Andean bears is plants.
Molly: I feel left out. Unfortunately, all of my animal knowledge is about birds and their rules.
John: Wait, did you just make a Byrd rule joke?
Molly: Yes. Did you expect anything different when you sat down with me and Sarah?
But back to the topic at hand: it’s also worth thinking about what happened before that fateful Oval Office meeting in September. Why did we get to the point where congressional leaders were in the Oval Office in the first place?
One reason is that Congress now does less legislating overall, making these must-pass spending bills the targets for conflict. Polarized parties in the Senate make it harder to build the 60-vote coalition necessary to overcome the threat of a filibuster, so there’s an advantage to combining all the spending bills together and just taking one set of votes. But that also sets up all-or-nothing fights like the one we’re having now.
In addition, the full version of the president’s budget, which can provide useful information to members of Congress, didn’t arrive until May. And then intraparty fighting among House Republicans over the budget resolution (which sets the framework for the spending process) and a strategy for bringing spending bills to the floor slowed the process down, too. The time and energy spent on other legislative priorities, like health care, didn’t help matters either.
John: So now what are the parties working on?
Sarah: The parties need two deals. First and most important, Democrats and Republicans need a deal on the overall level of defense and nondefense (roughly, “domestic”) spending. They can’t write the spending bills for the new fiscal year until they know how much they can spend on defense and domestic programs.
Why are there caps? They spring from the Budget Control Act, enacted by Obama and Congress back in 2011. Most lawmakers hate the caps. Defense hawks want more spent on the military, Democrats prefer higher domestic spending, and there aren’t enough deficit hawks to force Congress to stick with the caps. So every two years (2013, 2015) lawmakers have enacted bipartisan deals that raise the next two years’ spending caps.
So the first deal leaders and Trump need to reach before the CR runs out on Dec. 22 is an agreement on how much to raise the spending caps. Like previous deals, this one will be bipartisan: To avoid a Democratic filibuster, Republicans will deal Democrats in at the bargaining table. What will Democrats ask for? They put forth several priorities yesterday, including funding for children’s health care, protecting undocumented “Dreamers” and parity between domestic and defense spending.
Also, these are leader-negotiated deals. Where are the committee chairs and ranking members who write the spending bills? Nowhere to be seen.
John: Where have you gone, Rodney P. Frelinghuysen?
Sarah: Once leaders agree on spending caps, they’ll need a second deal on the details of the 12 bills that allocate about $1 trillion of government spending — for, say, National Park Service to open the zoo so John can visit the bears. That probably won’t be until January.
John: Are they really going to pass 12 separate spending bills? That seems complicated for a Congress that doesn’t legislate very much.
Sarah: Realistically, those 12 bills will probably be combined into an omnibus bill that includes most if not all of the 12 spending bills. (Monkey Cage readers might recall the “Cromnibus” bill from 2014 that combined a CR and an omnibus into the Cromnibus.)
John: It’s like a Cronut, just not remotely tasty. So if this bargaining doesn’t succeed, could we be headed to a shutdown like in 2013? And what does this mean for Quito?
Molly: I think it’s important to compare what Republicans were trying to get by engineering a shutdown in 2013 to what Democrats are trying to get this year. In 2013, Ted Cruz and his allies were pushing for a defunding of Obamacare — something that no Democrats were interested in.
This year, the biggest Democratic ask is a DACA provision — and there are 34 House Republicans on record asking for the same thing, not to mention Senator Jeff Flake, who requested the same in exchange for his vote on the tax bill. Plus, the defense hawks want to finish work on a military spending bill as quickly as possible. There are just more ways to get to yes this year than there were in 2013.
Another key difference is that in 2013, we were in a period of divided government. This year, the GOP runs everything. In her recent book on party conflict in Congress, Frances Lee argues that voters expect the majority party under unified government to deliver legislative results. So Republicans may be worried that they’d be blamed for not keeping the government open come next November.
Sarah: By most accounts, the public blamed Republicans for the 2013 shutdown. Indeed, when the parties went to the bargaining table, Republicans got very little of what they asked for and Democrats got most of what they wanted. Bottom line: Blame avoidance is a powerful motivator in Congress. Republicans seem to have learned a lesson from the shutdown. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been known to say, “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.”
John: Just checked: No mules at the National Zoo. But the miniature donkeys are very cute.
Sarah: Most important, donkeys graze, but zebras browse.