For the past several months, the specter of another government shutdown has loomed over Capitol Hill. This week, at the last minute, the House and Senate passed a temporary stopgap bill to fund the government until early December. To the casual observer, it might seem strange that every few months, another one of these budget fights crops up. And it’s always coupled with heated rhetoric about the terrors that will befall the nation if “non-essential” government employees stop working temporarily.
Why has Congress been operating in this down-to-the-wire, haphazard fashion? All while the President threatens not to sign any bill that defunds his pet projects into law, thus triggering a shutdown?
Some might say it’s a function of divided government, particularly with a Democratic president in office forced to deal with a Republican Congress ushered in by grassroots conservatives primarily responding to big spending on items such as Obamacare. Similar dynamics were present during the 1990s with Clinton in the White House, flanked by newly elected Republicans promising reform.
Conservative frustration however, is arguably at even higher levels today, reflected broadly in the Tea Party movement that swept three Senators now running for president into office. This anger at the status quo can also be seen presently through the fact that the three non-politicians in the Republican presidential primary are the current frontrunners.
Grassroots activists, who have worked through the Obama era to send the most conservative candidates possible to Congress, want to see results. Prior recent shutdown scares have surrounded conservative desires to defund first, Obamacare, and more immediately in the wake of controversial videos, Planned Parenthood. There have also been numerous proxy battles over wasteful and duplicative spending, with unfortunately, little to show for it.
Since spending bills must come from Congress and be signed into law by the President, it has been difficult for Republican leaders who want to avoid a government shutdown to compromise with the members who were elected by their constituents for the specific purpose of holding the line against Obama’s agenda. This is the case in particular when congressional leadership chooses to lurch from spending bill to spending bill with no concrete resolutions.
This has put former Speaker Boehner, who resigned last week under just the kind of aforementioned pressure, in a difficult spot. He and his Majority Leader counterpart in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, have repeatedly relied on Democrats to undermine the wishes of conservatives looking to use Congress’ spending power to eliminate funding for liberal items. The trouble is, the President responds by saying he won’t sign a funding bill into law unless it contains his preferred amounts. And he knows, rightly or wrongly, that he has the upper-hand in the public’s eye as things stand.
Since all spending expires and must be renewed to continue, if Congress fails to put a bill on the President’s desk in a timely fashion, or if he decides to veto it, that triggers a government shutdown; not particularly crisis-inducing in any immediate sense, but almost always a public relations nightmare for Republicans. The GOP is effectively cast as childish bullies, willing to stop the government in its tracks by refusing to fund its basic operations, even though the story is vastly more complicated than such a simple narrative captures.
One could say the trouble is Obama and his unwillingness to respect the constitutional authority vested in Congress around spending bills. Democrats have decided that they’d rather allow a government shutdown than compromise on their budget priorities, because it’s easy for them to blame Republicans. Frustrating? Yes, but also the political world in which we live presently; partially because Republicans won’t step up to the plate.
There is however, another way; if Congress chooses to do its job and act in a responsible fashion. In that spirit, Rand Paul took to the Senate floor in the midst of this week’s budget debate to explain how Congress can move away from the past decade of irresponsible, piecemeal, last minute “continuing resolutions” (CRs).
Describing the latest CR as “a warmed over version of yesterday’s failures,” Paul noted the fact that the budgeting process has devolved into nothing more than “a continuation of the deficit spending of the past;” spending that has resulted in over $18 trillion in federal debt. In fact, in the past decade since the CR process – which haphazardly lumps all spending into one bill – has been used in lieu of proper appropriations measures, nearly $10 trillion has been added to the national debt.
“We are told that we can’t win. That we need sixty votes (in the Senate) to defund anything. But perhaps there’s an alternate future where courage steps up and saves the day. All spending is set to expire automatically. This is the perfect time to turn the tables; to tell the other side that THEY will need sixty votes to affirmatively spend ANY money. It doesn’t have to be sixty votes to STOP things; all spending WILL expire. And only those programs for which we can get sixty votes should go forward.
What would that mean? It would mean an elimination of waste. An elimination of duplication. An elimination of bad things that we spend money on. If we had the courage, we could use the Senate’s supermajority rules to stop wasteful spending. If we had the courage, we could force the other side to come up with sixty votes to fund things like Planned Parenthood. The budget is loaded with nonsense and waste.”
The truth is, Paul is absolutely correct. Congress has, as he noted, abdicated its basic powers, essentially allowing the President to legislate on a variety of different levels, but particularly in the realm of spending. Instead of putting forth individual appropriations bills, which would require a lot of work, but is what members of Congress were elected to do, the legislative branch repeatedly admits defeat before even trying to cut spending. In fact, both the White House and Republican leaders have been more focused on attempting to undo the minor but helpful sequestration spending caps that were put into place as a compromise measure for raising the debt ceiling, yet again, back in 2011.
Ultimately, it appears as though most members of Congress simply don’t care about the fact that our national debt adds up to nearly $155,000 per taxpayer. By passing hapless CR after hapless CR, and funding the government in this dysfunctional fashion without targeted spending reductions, our Representatives have made themselves abundantly clear.
It’s time to sift through the list of who’s endorsing this behavior with their votes, to call their offices, and tell them to pressure GOP leadership, particularly whomever will be the next Speaker of the House, to change this process. To, as Paul suggested, put forth serious appropriations bills, and force those who want to spend money we borrow from China on the backs of future generations to own each ridiculous, wasteful program they support with their individual vote.
For too long, congressional leadership has acquiesced to the Executive branch and created a false choice: fund everything the President demands, or endure a government shutdown. It doesn’t have to be this way, but only grassroots pressure will change that. Call your representatives today and demand responsible, individual appropriations bills. Anything short of that reflects the failed status quo of budget brinkmanship that both hurts conservatives in the eyes of the public, and adds countless millions to the already unsustainable national debt. It’s long past time for a new path forward.
Photo by Catherine Lane/Getty Images
Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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