Max Stier is president and chief executive of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
Funding the federal government in a timely fashion is a fundamental responsibility of our elected officials, a commitment that is now being violated for about the 20th time since 1976 and taken to the extreme with the deadlock over paying for a border wall.
As we near the ugly milestone of the longest government shutdown in our history, 800,000 federal employees are being deprived of their livelihoods, the American people are denied critical services, and the ability of agencies to fulfill their public-service missions is being undermined.
Resolution of the current crisis is essential, but it is not enough. For decades, we have seen politicians take our government to the brink because of one policy dispute or another. Stalemates will happen again and again unless incentives and processes change to ensure that another devastating impasse can be avoided.
Here are a few ideas on how we might get there.
If members of Congress, the president and vice president cannot fulfill their fundamental responsibility to meet the deadlines for keeping the government fully functioning, their salaries should be withheld just as they are withholding the pay of federal employees across the country.
Why should Border Patrol agents, airport security screeners, Secret Service agents and other federal employees be deprived of their paychecks — and in many cases still be required to work — while elected officials get paid for not doing their jobs?
The consequences of their dereliction of duty are innumerable: low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities losing rental assistance. Employers unable to verify the legal status and eligibility of prospective employees. Companies unable to get federal approval for new public stock offerings or small-business loans. Public health and safety also are at risk as environmental inspections cease and disease surveillance suffers.
A second approach to averting government shutdowns would be to experiment with a rule change on government funding that would trigger an automatic continuing resolution whenever Congress and the president failed to agree on money for all or parts of our government. While certainly not the ideal solution, it is worth trying given the dismal results of the current process.
Last year Congress empaneled a bipartisan, bicameral select committee to examine this and other options for fixing the budget and appropriations processes; while the select committee was not able to reach consensus, it did important work. Lawmakers should pick up where the committee left off and try again.
Third, let’s make sure that partisan warfare does not imperil the financial stability of our career public servants: We must continue to pay their salaries during a shutdown. Many public servants — such as prison guards and air traffic controllers— are deemed essential to the preservation of life or property, and they are required to work. Shouldn’t they and the rest of the workforce affected by a shutdown get the respect and the paycheck that goes along with their governmental responsibilities?
These approaches would be an improvement to the unsatisfactory status quo, but in truth would be just a Band-Aid covering up systemic disregard for the federal workforce and the important work of our government.
Year after year, the failure of Congress to provide funding on time has eroded the ability of federal agencies to make sound program, policy and management decisions. Overseas, it reinforces the narrative of our adversaries that the United States is a declining power. At home, chronic budgetary uncertainty is forcing agencies to delay or abandon programs; damaging federal contractors and other private-sector businesses; resulting in lapses in public services; delaying the delivery of grants to states and municipalities; and wasting taxpayer dollars by the billions.
Passing spending bills on time is not an impossible task. Congress did just that for the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and others before last year’s budget deadline. Yet other departments were left to wither, starved of the resources and stability required to serve the public.
For too long, our government and its dedicated public servants have been pawns in a bitter game of political chess. Shutting down all or part of the government, withholding pay from federal employees and curbing the ability of government to fulfill critical missions represent a huge disservice to the American people and to the well-being of our nation.