Government Shutdown

It's Government Shutdown Theater, Again

Fiscal irresponsibility might eventually shut down the government, but at the moment it’s all for show.


Asked if we should expect a shutdown of the federal government, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) says "no" and points out "we still have a number of days" until funding runs out on October 1. The White House, though, insists debate over spending is "marching our country toward a government shutdown." The battling takes are political theater as are so-called "government shutdowns" which, unfortunately, are nothing of the sort. No matter how D.C. disputes end, the federal government will certainly continue spending entirely too much and, no matter what the headlines say, will never have really shut down.

Dueling Budget Takes

Arguments over how much to spend are a normal part of government, with natural tensions between those who want to spend somewhat less (or just increase spending by not quite so much as their opponents) and those (usually in the majority) who embrace spending ever more.

"As Covid tyranny ramps up again, reckless spending is sabotaging economic stability while fantasy energy policies destroy the American dream," Rep. Chip Roy (R–Texas) wrote in a September 14 op-ed favoring defunding Democratic green and social-justice-y policies in favor of the GOP's preference for border restrictions. "The 'power of the purse' is the most effective tool we possess to force an out-of-control executive branch to end its abuses and focus only on its core functions."

"Extreme House Republicans continue to demand a reckless laundry list of partisan proposals as a condition of keeping the government open—from an evidence-free impeachment that even some of their own members don't agree with, to reckless cuts to programs millions of hardworking families and seniors count on, to a litany of other extraneous ideological demands," the Biden administration sniped back.

Whatever you think of any given policies, debates over spending are normal and healthy. When politicians stop debating and come together on how money squeezed from us ought to be used, then it's time to be afraid. It's also not unusual for politicians to miss deadlines for deciding how much money to (over)spend. Since the current budgeting process was adopted in 1976, spending gaps have occurred almost two dozen times. The idea that this heralds the collapse of the government is relatively recent.

Funding Gaps Are Old, but "Shutdowns" Are New

"Until 1980, there was no such thing as a 'government shutdown,'" Denver Nicks noted for Time in 2013. "When presidents didn't have cash, they spent on credit. If Congress failed to pass a budget on time, federal agencies just carried on with work until their appropriated funding was authorized retroactively."

In 1980, then-Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti interpreted the Antideficiency Act of 1870 to mean that federal agencies can't spend without authorization. No budget meant no authorization, so government had to "shut down." But does anybody really think that government officials will voluntarily stop doing to us what they've been empowered to do, just because direct deposits are briefly interrupted? Of course not! This is political theater.

Government "Shutdowns" Are Nothing of the Sort

"Once in a while, to really get the crowd on their feet, the President will offer up a showstopper in which he 'shuts down' the government," James R. Harrigan and Antony Davies of the American Institute for Economic Research wrote in January of this year. "But the shutdown only ever applies to non-essential government services (don't ask why we're spending on anything that's non-essential, anyway). And as soon as the shutdown ends, all the money that would have been spent during the shutdown is then spent retroactively."

That means lots of headlines about national parks closing their gates and federal workers waiting for paychecks that they'll inevitably receive. Basically, the brief hiatus is reserved for anything that inconveniences the public and plucks at heart strings. The stuff that government officials actually care about continues, of course.

"Services that the government deems 'essential,' such as those related to law enforcement and public safety, continue," Bloomberg's Erik Wasson assures us. "Defining 'essential' is more art than science, however, and individual government departments — and the political appointees who run them — have a say over who comes to work and who stays home."

You can safely assume that ATF agents will still be out there keeping the world safe from paperwork violations, the DEA will continue to dutifully hunt down disfavored intoxicants, and the FBI will be on the alert for whoever constitutes this week's enemies of the state. And no, they're not laboring out of the goodness of their hearts.

"Thanks to a 2019 law signed as part of the measure to fund the government at the end of the 35-day shutdown, they all will automatically be granted back pay to cover the shutdown once funding is restored," reports Government Executive's Erich Wagner. "In previous appropriations lapses, Congress had to approve back pay for furloughed federal workers following each shutdown, but that process has since been automated."

Finger-pointing over the shutdown all comes from a well-worn script, too. None of this is particularly new or interesting. "Political theater is at an all-time high as both parties seek to outdo each other with more elaborate and showy news events, even as there is little legislating or even backroom negotiating underway to end the stalemate," Michael A. Memoli observed for The Spokesman-Review in 2013.

"Shutdowns" Are No Disaster, But Government Overspending Is

None of this means that government officials are good at debating and passing budgets. Actually, they continuously fail to exercise adult judgment regarding their financial responsibilities.

"Congress has not completed all of the steps in the appropriations process on time since 1996," Reason's Peter Suderman pointed out in the April issue. "Many years, Congress has passed no budget resolution at all. Instead, the process has become increasingly centralized, with party leadership drawing up 'omnibus' spending packages that combine all the appropriations bills into a single piece of megalegislation, which lawmakers are given essentially no time to read or debate."

Worse, the federal government has consistently spent far more than it takes in for decades.

"Since 2001, the federal government's budget has run a deficit each year," admits the U.S. Department of the Treasury. "Starting in 2016, increases in spending on Social Security, health care, and interest on federal debt have outpaced the growth of federal revenue."

In all of the various scenarios the Congressional Budget Office projects for federal spending, it no longer even contemplates balanced budgets as a possibility. It's all just different ratios of spending, deficits, and debt, leading to fiscal disaster sooner or later.

When that day of reckoning finally arrives, then you might see a real government shutdown.