Government Shutdown Mechanics
Continuing Resolution- Sometimes also called a CR, this is a type of legislation, that takes the form of a joint resolution of Congress, to fund the government when a full appropriations bill has not been passed. It is a stop-gap measure.
"Clean" CR- In the current debate this refers to a Continuing Resolution that leaves the Affordable Care Act alone.
Appropriations Bill- a piece of legislation that designates the spending of money in a budget context.
The government shutdown that began October 1, 2013 is the result of a series of political calculations, events, and Constitutional mechanics. The United States operates on a fiscal year basis. The fiscal year begins October 1st. Congress under Article I, Sections 7 & 8 is responsible for passing a budget that authorizes the President and the Executive Branch to fund the activities of the Federal Government. Congress failed to pass a budget before the start of the fiscal year and the expiration of the prior budget authorization. The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 largely control the current budget process. The Executive Branch shut down non-essential operations and services until Congress passed a budget and the President signed the bill into law.
To understand the background of the current budget crisis, you need to go back to at least 2010. Tea Party affiliated candidates swept into office in Congress and in state legislatures. Many of the Tea Party and other conservative Republican candidates that won office credited their victories to the public’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. The Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives.The Senate remained in control of the Democrats, barely. The two parties had difficulty agreeing on a budget and on raising the debt ceiling to avoid the first ever U.S. default on its public debt. A last minute compromise avoided the so-called fiscal cliff, but the Democrats felt they had given too much to avoid the crisis.
During that same election Republicans strengthened control over state legislatures. This was important because the 2010 census required the redistricting of many House districts. The Republican dominated legislatures gerrymandered the districts to create more “safe” Republican seats.
Who deserves most of the blame for the government shutdown?
During the 2012 elections the Republicans lost their bid to oust President Obama, but kept their control over the House, thanks largely to another influx of conservative and Tea Party affiliated Republicans. This core of Congressmen elected from conservative districts in 2010 and 2012 made it clear that repeal of the Affordable Care Act was their highest priority. Their overarching philosophy was shrinking the size and expense of the federal government.
The Republican dominated House and the Democratic controlled Senate were unable to reach a compromise after the 2012 election on the budget. They two sides let the “sequester” across the board cuts take effect because they were unable to make a deal. Despite Democratic predictions that the cuts would be devastating, the general public largely did not notice any change in government services and the promised public backlash never developed.
Congress has rarely passed a budget before the October 1st deadline. The last time this deadline was met was in 1997. However, the government usually avoids shut down because Congresses passes Continuing Resolutions that continue to fund the government until a bipartisan compromise is reached.
How a Bill Becomes a Law
- There are probably enough votes in the House to pass a "Clean" CR, between the democrats and many Republicans. However, the members cannot get such a bill to the floor for a vote yet because of the strict control the Speaker of the House has on what legislation gets voted on. The so called "Hastert Rule" is often invoked. This informal policy means the Speaker will not bring anything to a vote that does not have the support of 51% of his party.
- Many observers note that in times past earmarks were used to negotiate with members to resolve impasses such as this. An earmark is a special line item in a bill that authorizes special funding for projects, usually in the home states and districts of certain members of Congress. These earmarks were mostly eliminated by rules changes in the House and Senate meant to lower government spending and make appropriations bills more transparent.
Current Budget Process
The conservative House Republicans quickly realized they lacked the votes to repeal Obamacare. They changed tactics and began trying to either delay or defund the controversial law. President Obama countered that he would not negotiate a delay or defunding effort of the Affordable Care Act and would veto any bill attempting to do so. Senate Majority Leader Reid also made clear that the Senate would not pass a Continuing Resolution that sought to delay or defund the law.
The Senate Democrats passed Continuing Resolutions that would fund the government and not touch Obamacare. The House Republicans passed Continuing Resolutions that would delay or defund Obamacare. The Senate democrats in April 2012 offered to have a Conference Committee where representatives of both the House and Senate could meet to hammer out a compromise. The House through Speaker John Boehner declined to be a part of a conference committee stating there was no point in meeting yet because the sides were too far apart.
In the weeks and days leading up to the government shutdown deadline it became apparent that the Democrats were convinced the House Republicans would take the blame for a shut down and were not inclined to compromise on their position. The House Republicans began to splinter, but a core group of conservative Republicans were equally convinced that President Obama would take the blame for a shut down and were not inclined to budge.
The House Republicans after the shut down offered to sit down with the Senate at a Conference Committee. The Senate Democrats have declined the offer stating the parties are not any closer than they were when the Republicans refused to form a Conference Committee.
The shut down quickly became a blame game and a contest to get influence public opinion about who was really at fault for the shutdown.
Politics Over Policy?
The Government Shutdown Shows Checks and Balances Work.
The President is threatening to veto a bill that he feels would not be in the public's best interest and is not popular with the majority of the country. The House wants to take action that is radical, "defund" and existing law. The Senate is trying to temper those efforts. This is how our Constitutional system was designed.
The Government Shutdown is Democracy Run Amok
Republicans and Democrats are preening for the cameras and are fighting to see who will take the blame and suffer the political cost instead of working towards a solution. This is the danger of political parties that James Madison warned about in The Federalist Papers.
Constitutional Role of the Congress
The Constitution gave Congress the purse strings in Article I. The idea is that Congress makes the laws and decides on funding priorities. Congress also makes tax policy. Congress decides how much money the government should spend, what the money should be spent on, and where the revenues to pay for the government should come from.
Constitutional Role of the President
The President is head of the Executive Branch and is charged with executing the laws passed by Congress. The Executive Branch has limited authority to direct spending. The Executive cannot spend money Congress has not authorized and cannot raise taxes on its own. The Executive Branch does have some limited authority to not spend money, but this has largely been curtailed by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. President Obama legally could not keep the government fully functioning when Congress failed to produce a budget or Continuing Resolution.
The current budget fight and government shutdown is also taking place in the shadow of what leaders and economists regard as the real danger, the debt ceiling crisis. The debt ceiling will be met on or around October 17, 2013. Both Speaker Boehner and President Obama have stated the government cannot be allowed to default on its debt and that the debt ceiling issue will be resolved on time. In the meantime the government shutdown will continue until one side concedes it has lost the public opinion battle.
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American Government 101
This article is part of a collection of articles about the workings of the government of the United States. Articles are added regularly. Please check out other articles in this collection to learn more. If you have a suggestion for a topic for a future article tell me in the comments.
© 2013 Forseti