Shutdown 101: The Politics

September 24, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about the basic mechanics of a government shutdown. Today, I’ll quickly cover a little bit of the politics. I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about the specifics of the current debate. You can get the facts from a variety of journalistic sources, and some pretty darn good analysis from the myriad of great bloggers who follow Hill politics. What I’m going to talk about is some of the structural/institutional issues that affect shutdown politics, which tend to be overlooked by observers. Six quick points:

1) The politics of a shutdown is primarily driven by the deadline(s). This may seem obvious, but the implications aren’t often appreciated. With normal legislating, even if the issues are massive (i.e. Civil Rights Act), the consequences of non-action is merely the status quo. In a lot of cases that’s not a great result. But if you thought you’d have it sewn up by November and it took until December, no big deal. In fact, if everything falls apart, you still haven’t gone backwards. No so with the appropriations process (or other deadline-based legislation, or sunset legislation); the consequence of non-action is shutdown, which from a political standpoint is a very volatile situation, which means it’s a risky one that people tend to avoid. Which means that people try to extract concessions by holding out. Which means things are rarely settled until very close to the deadline.

It also means that some of the axioms of Hill politics come into play: something (i.e. anything) tends to beat nothing. If you can produce a plausible solution, you tend to win the politics against an opponent who has nothing besides their opposition to your solution. On the other hand, there’s a corollary to this: something that is proven impossible isn’t any better than nothing. This is particularly true in our current (and rare) configuration of divided government: whenever the House passes something, they have, well, something. This trumps the Senate’s nothing, but only until the Senate decisively defeats/tables it. Then it’s mostly the equivalent of nothing. You might get a little credit for passing that something, but not much.

Related to the deadline is a second concept: the appropriations process is more or less routine. That is, it happens every year. And therefore it is really hard to get the public all up in a twist about the substance of the issue. Despite being fundamentally constitutive to the functioning of the government, there’s not much that’s very sexy about appropriations. It’s obviously a monster deal to the ideological and financially-consequential interests that surround the money, but that still doesn’t excite the public imagination the way a hot-button social issue or foreign policy debate will. People can talk all they want about reducing or not reducing the size of government. It doesn’t translate into people paying attention to annual approps. On the other hand, shutting the government down does get people’s attention, both prospectively and after-the-fact. Which means that the public politics of the shutdown tend to focus on the shutdown, and not on the appropriations. Which tends to mean it’s better to focus your strategic public efforts on the consequences, not on the substance.

2) There are two different deadlines (and maybe three). The first, and obvious, one is the day the current appropriations or continuing resolution runs out, which is annually October 1, but also can be whenever a continuing resolution put in place to extend that deadline expires. This is the drop-dead date the government actually shutting down. The second deadline point (which I call the invisible deadline) is the point at which it no longer becomes feasible to finish the appropriations bills, either individually or as an omnibus/consolidated. This deadline is more flexible, as it can occur weeks before the drop-dead deadline if everyone agrees the appropriations bills won’t be done, or it can be just days or hours before the drop-dead deadline, when it becomes apparent that negotiations on the actual bills will not produce results by the drop-dead deadline. Finally, there’s the date far into the future in which everyone will give up trying to pass the appropriations bills, and just pass a long-term continuing resolution, that funds the remainder of the year. (That has consequences too, but I’ll save them for if/when we get close to that contingency).

In any case, the consequence of passing the invisible deadline is that the politics shift, from the politics of appropriations to the politics of a continuing resolution (CR), and thus shutdown. I guess the upshot here is that shutdown politics do not revolve around appropriations in the tactical sense. That’s the strategic battle, or strategic theater for the battle. The actual shutdown is fought on the terms of the continuing resolution, since the question is never whether to finish the approps bills or shut the government down, it’s always whether to temporarily fund the government while finishing the bills, or shut the government down while finishing the bills. I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough: the bills have to be finished whether the government shuts down or not; the issue at hand prior to a shutdown is always over whether to temporarily fund the government while finishing the bills.

3) The politics of a CR revolve around proposed additions to a “clean” resolution. A basic CR simply says, “we are appropriating the amounts necessary for you to keep spending money at the same rate as last year. You may do this until we either pass your actual appropriation, or until date X,” where X is some date in the future. It’s merely a holding pattern. A CR becomes controversial when people start trying to add things to it. Things like supplemental or emergency appropriations, or across-the-board cuts, or line-item adjustments to particular accounts.

One upshot of all this is that it quickly becomes incomprehensible to anyone outside the beltway: as the deadline for the shutdown approaches, the debate is fundamentally not over annual appropriations, it’s over whether to have a clean CR or one with additions. On one side of the debate, a party wants to add something to the clean CR; the other side will either demand a clean CR, or attempt to extract a counter-policy in exchange for clearing the addition. Right now, the Democrats would prefer to add disaster relief funding to the CR; Republicans may or may not prefer that to a clean CR, but they are demanding certain cuts in exchange for the addition to the CR. The debate will really heat as the deadline approaches: at some point, someone will suggest a clean CR, and the other side will have to accept/reject it.

4) The politics completely changes again if the government actually does shutdown. As described yesterday, most shutdowns in the last 35 years have been only for a few days, and the longest was three weeks. Whatever the playing field prior to the shutdown, a winner and loser are relatively quickly determined afterwards. It’s probably a slightly negative-sum game for the parties, but my sense is that you usually see a capitulation rather than a compromise after an actual shutdown. I haven’t looked at it systematically, but my anecdotal sense is that most shutdowns include pretty strong miscalculations by one party or the other. Again, I don’t think all shutdowns are negative-sum utter failures; it’s definitely possible to strategically plan and win a shutdown, or goad someone into mistakenly doing so, but the variance is so high as to whether or not you’ll get blamed, that it hardly seems good strategy to purposefully bring one on. One thing that instantly changes is the media frame: national news gets saturated with one new kind of story:  “look what federal agency” isn’t performing it’s vital function and/or “check out these road signs that say Yellowstone isn’t open.” Another thing is that the clock starts ticking a lot faster: the media/chattering class pressure for a deal ramps up exponentially.  It’s not at all clear that the parties respond well to this change in frame/politics.

5) Agencies hate shutdown politics and CRs, and this year may be even more so. Normally, aggregate appropriations increase each year, and clean CRs temporarily delay that increase.  In a typical shutdown/CR situation, the agencies are annoyed because of the uncertainty: they have to start their new fiscal year without both without knowing their budget number, and with only the pro-rated CR amounts available to them from the previous year. But in the current climate, things change quite a bit. Aggregate appropriations are scheduled to decrease, and clean CRs temporarily delay a decrease. Now they agencies know almost for certain that their budgets are going to be cut; therefore, operating under last year’s money is both easier and harder: easier because your pro-rated funds will be more than you will end up getting anyway, so it’s not like you have to plan for some additional spending and deal with less in the meantime; harder, because you can’t spend all your CR pro-rated money, or else you are going to put yourself in a real hole when the final numbers come out, and you’ve outspent it on a pro-rated basis. Basically, agencies need to have huge discipline in these circumstances.

6) The fiscal calendar and the electoral calendar make for strange bedfellows. I’m not sure this was fully appreciated in 1976 when they moved the start of the fiscal year from June 1 to October 1, which is significantly close to the November election in even-numbered years. In election years, finishing the annual appropriations in late September is theoretically the last thing any given Congress will do. If they are successfully completed, the Congress may not come back for any substantive work until after the election and the new year, when the next Congress begins. But it’s also true that any significant actions Congress considers taking in September of an election year is potentially going to make for an important election issue. This makes appropriations politics even more high-profile than it would normally be, which is pretty high to begin with. As such, it’s not uncommon or CRs to push the final decision making past the election. And the results of the election can often make one side or the other prefer to finish the appropriation in the next Congress, when the balance of power may be different in the chambers (or the White House.)


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