Hundreds of thousands of federal workers will soon go without their second paycheck this month, as the 32-day shutdown drags on with no end in sight. But if there’s a silver lining for them, it might be this: The messier this gets, the more momentum there could be for a mechanism to effectively outlaw future shutdowns.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) on Tuesday introduced a bill called the Stop STUPIDITY Act. In the event of a lapse in government funding, the act would reinstate funding levels from the previous fiscal year — except for Congress and the office of the president, which would not receive funding until they reached an agreement.
Warner’s Republican colleague Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) reintroduced his own proposal last week. Rather than shut down the government in the absence of a budget, it would institute an across-the-board 1 percent funding cut for all agencies and would cut another 1 percent every 90 days that no agreement is reached.
Lawmakers introduce bills all the time, and there’s little reason to believe that either of these plans will pass or even earn a vote. But if there were ever an environment conducive to such a bill, this could be it.
One of the dirty little secrets of the shutdown is that it’s not even a fight Republicans particularly desired. In fact, the GOP-controlled Senate passed a regular government funding bill via unanimous voice vote last month, before President Trump changed his mind and insisted on money for a border wall. Republicans largely have stood behind Trump, but they seem to be tolerating him more than cheering his strategy.
It’s a strategy they could pay a price for. Polling shows that a majority of Americans blame the GOP and Trump for the shutdown. Republicans seem to be jammed between that political reality and their deathly aversion to angering the president. Senate Republicans could try to end the shutdown by passing a clean government funding bill, but doing so would come at a significant cost to the president’s political capital.
Democrats would probably support such a proposal, given that shutdowns tend to be a weapon used by Republicans. Democrats did force a brief shutdown last year, over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but the last big one came in 2013, when Republicans tried to defund Obamacare. The last lengthy shutdown before that came in the mid-1990s, when Republicans insisted that President Bill Clinton balance the budget with specific estimates.
None of these shutdowns really worked, which is another argument for taking the option off the table. Similar to this shutdown, the 2013 version was basically forced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and tolerated by GOP leaders, even though they had to know it was a fool’s errand. Shutdowns are a great way for the more extreme elements of a party to hijack the government for potential leverage, leaving more moderate leaders to figure out the details. A logical solution for those moderates would be to get rid of the shutdown option when passions aren’t running so high.
All that said, permanently removing the option would rightly be seen as an anti-Trump move. Coming off the longest shutdown, and one spurred by the president, Republicans would be making their unhappiness with the results of Trump’s strategy pretty clear. It would be a tough needle to thread.
But we’ve already seen some movement toward mitigating the impacts of the shutdown. Congress has passed a bill assuring back pay for all federal workers once the shutdown ends. Practically speaking, though, that means all the work that would have been performed by those employees will now be lost productivity, as the government will have to pay people for work they didn’t do. Last time, when back pay was awarded after the shutdown concluded, this cost the government an estimated $2 billion.
Which, again, would seem to be a pretty good reason to do something that would prevent this from happening again.