Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Piecemeal spending bills are no way to fund a government that is responsible for the world’s largest economy. But it is an unfortunate function of the hyper-partisan nature of Washington politics that the kind of long-term budgets we are used to in Westminster haven’t materialised since May 2015 – and even that was the first proper budget passed in six years.
Unable to pass proper funding legislation owing to a divided Congress in which the Republican majority requires the support of some opposition Democrats, the government instead relies on Continuing Resolutions (CRs) as a stop-gap measure to keep the government funded. In the case of political disagreement and an inability to find a compromise, the Government shuts down.
It was Republican Senator John Kennedy who offered the sharpest critique of the state of play: “Our country was founded by geniuses, but it’s being run by some idiots”.
What happened and who’s to blame?
Preparations for a shutdown had been carefully laid for weeks, with politicians on all sides lining up the blame if the shutdown took place. Therefore, a shutdown was hardly a surprise when Congress was divided on funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a deal on the so-called “Dreamer” childhood arrivals into the US (DACA) and the President’s attempts to shore up the southern border.
The shutdown was averted after 69 hours and government funding reinstated once Republicans and Democrats voted on Monday for a temporary spending bill, passing the House of Representatives 266-150 and the Senate by 81-18. It became the fourth temporary spending measure since October 2017, symbolising the growing split in Washington politics and the disincentive to work on a bipartisan basis ahead of the November 2018 midterm elections.
Allocating blame depends on your partisan tilt. Democrats will rightly claim that, in the words of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, votes are the currency of the realm. The Republican leadership needed Democratic votes in order to secure a compromise, and so they ought to have been in a collegiate mood. Republicans can claim a win having secured a stop-gap funding deal based on little more than a pledge to have an open debate on immigration – a promise that could easily fall by the wayside and be consigned to the status of a beltway story that never registered with the American people.
Allocating the long-term damage is an inaccurate science. On the back of the deal to fund the government again, an NBC poll found 39 per cent of respondents blamed Democrats while 38 per cent blamed President Trump. But among independent voters, 48 per cent blamed Trump the most, giving Democrats reason to be optimistic heading into the midterms. Spelling trouble for the opposition, however, was the fact that left of centre Democrats rumoured to be positioning themselves for a run at the presidency in 2020 – Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris – all voted against the legislation that eventually broke the deadlock. A united caucus will be crucial as another potential shutdown looms, but all Democrats will have been relieved that CHIP funding was secured for a further six years. It was a reminder that sometimes politics is about delivering for those who need it most, not spinning the wins and losses.
The countdown to the next shutdown is on
Furloughed government employees breathed a sigh of relief as they returned to work. The White House, Republicans and Democrats can continue spinning the cause of the shutdown and laying blame at the feet of their opponents. All the while the countdown to the next shutdown begins. The latest CR keeps the government funded until 8th February – it is the hope that Congress can reach a long-term budget deal before then. Without such progress, the threat of another shutdown looms large in the background.
Mitch McConnell’s promise to seek a compromise on immigration should be taken with something between a grain and an ocean of salt. Bipartisan consensus on immigration is a lofty goal to achieve in the next three weeks, but there’s nothing to suggest that this White House can achieve in weeks what other presidents failed to do in two terms. Another shutdown can’t be ruled out, and with plenty of blame to go around both sides will be gaming a victory again.