What if the federal government was reduced to its essential functions? What if thousands of federal workers were sent home without pay? What if citizens were forced to examine the real role that the federal government plays in their lives and Congress was confronted with hard questions about spending? What if Americans got a chance to see what life was like in the absence of the hundreds of ways, large and small, that federal spending changes incentives all around them?
Alas, government shutdowns aren't nearly as exciting as they sound. It turns out there's a lot of daylight between a government shutdown and actually shutting the government down. Yet they remain an oddly powerful threat in American politics, with an anticipated shutdown playing a starring role in exciting events taking place on Capitol Hill as this issue goes to press.
Shutdowns are largely theater. Even one of the longest ones in recent memory—a solid 35 days of partial shutdown in 2018—didn't make much of a dent in overall spending. The battle was over a federal tab that eventually clocked in at $4.4 trillion for the year. Of that, about $18 billion ended up getting delayed, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). That's less than half of a percent of the total. And $18 billion isn't even the real savings, since about half of it was pay owed to federal employees, which they received when the government reopened.
In fact, in 2019 Congress passed a law guaranteeing that back pay, further lowering the stakes of a shutdown. That law covers only federal employees, but there is a bill under consideration that would offer the same guarantee to the ever-swelling ranks of federal contractors.
The CBO also noted that while there was some reduction in gross domestic product during the quarter that the shutdown took place, it was largely (though not quite entirely) made up in subsequent quarters.
So shutdowns don't really save money and most of the uncertainty that they cause is already priced in to the broader economy. The huge machine of the federal government mostly grinds on, expensive and intrusive. Aside from delayed pay, a few showy closures of museums and national parks, and even longer delays in the processing of paperwork, it's business as usual.
Shutdowns don't seem to be occasions for self-scrutiny either. Congress has habitually procrastinated on its budgetary duties for decades. For the last 27 years, it has never managed to deliver a budget under "regular order," the process codified by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974.
In theory, the president proposes a budget, Congress passes a budget resolution, and then various committees put together a dozen separate spending bills. They're debated and voted on, and then the president signs them into law by October 1. What happens instead is that the members of the House careen into each fall full tilt, screaming at each other until they throw together some kind of stopgap measure to fund the federal government for a little while longer until they can get their act together to generate a big, messy omnibus bill that no one will have time to read.
When they can't manage even that, we get a shutdown. When Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) was elected speaker of the House, he reportedly promised a handful of House Republicans that there would be no more messy continuing resolutions but instead something like regular order. These Republicans, vaguely clustered around the vestigially libertarian but now mostly MAGA Freedom Caucus, had McCarthy over a barrel. In addition to their quite sensible demands about the budget process, they also demanded procedural concessions involving tax increases, new spending, and amendments to fire or reduce the pay of federal officials. They also extracted the traditional venal earmarks and some troubling concessions on oversight of ongoing investigations.
Reason's Peter Suderman diplomatically wrote at the time: "It remains to be seen whether McCarthy will deliver on his promises."
He did not.
At press time, McCarthy had narrowly averted a shutdown and managed to pass a continuing resolution, only to be shocked to discover that there are consequences to broken promises. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fla.), a leader of the GOP dissenters, introduced a rare "motion to vacate"—that is, to remove McCarthy as speaker. After about an hour of debate, McCarthy was gone.
"It's a sad day," Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said, arguing that removing McCarthy would plunge the House "into chaos."
Gaetz offered a different view: "Chaos is Speaker McCarthy."
In fact, the chaos of the congressional budget process is bigger than just one man or even one caucus. Chaos has been the default, the natural order of things for at least a generation.
McCarthy's continuing resolution, his final act as speaker, funds the government only through November 17. So by the time you read this magazine, chaos may once again be overtaking Washington. The country will likely be staring down another shutdown. Just don't believe them when they tell you the government will really shut down.