Shutdown Showdowns Give Minority Parties a Powerful Platform

Congress averted the threat of a government shutdown once again on Thursday, but in passing a stopgap measure that continued funding just through February 18, they only prolonged a debate over the nation's annual budget.

The standoff came as a surprise to no one, as the process of passing the federal budget has become a political quagmire, with lawmakers using the critical deadlines to try to force negotiations on contentious issues. According to congressional researchers, Congress has only passed annual appropriations bills before October 1—when the new federal budget year begins—four times in the past four decades, often resorting to temporary measures like that taken Thursday night.

For several months, lawmakers have struggled to work on a real annual federal spending plan, as Democrats claim Republicans have resisted engaging in serious talks that would advance the effort.

"You [in the media] like to make it look like, 'Oh, we can't get things done.' No, we've been trying to come together to do the omnibus bill, but the Republicans will not come to the table to discuss it," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters this week. "We look forward to negotiations with our Republican colleagues, House and Senate, in order to bring the full omnibus to the floor as soon as possible."

It's unclear why Republicans have opted out of negotiations, aside from vague insinuations that they disagree with Democrats' policy positions and plans for defense spending. When asked for further detail on areas of contention, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell's office deferred to Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Reached by Newsweek, Shelby's office didn't offer much insight, saying in a statement that Republicans need for Democrats to agree they won't pursue a plan with unrelated riders or by wrecking amendments, without referring to any specific items. "If that doesn't happen, we'll be having this same conversation in February," he said in a statement.

Democrats, who have said they aren't looking for a "go-it-alone" strategy, have suggested the sticking point may be the unrelated $1.7 trillion expansion of the social safety net, backed by President Joe Biden, and unpopular with most Republicans.

Senator Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, accused his Republican colleagues of not negotiating in "good faith" during a brief floor speech on Thursday evening. He implored GOP leadership to "step up and engage" with Democrats in budget discussions in the coming weeks. "In order to complete these negotiations, we have to begin them—we have to have both sides represented at the table."

There are generally about a dozen bills that make up the full annual budget. When they haven't passed by the time the new year begins on October 1, Congress turns to "continuing resolutions" to extend government funding at its current level for a designated period of time, often with a few emergency additions for items like disaster relief. Continuing resolutions prevent shutdowns that would furlough federal employees, shutter some departments and suspend certain vital government services.

Shutdowns can be costly and send ripples through the economy. The last one, the longest in history, stretched for five weeks until its resolution in January 2019. The result of a fight over funding for a southern border wall spearheaded by then-President Donald Trump, that shutdown was estimated to have knocked $3 billion off the nation's gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

After avoiding another shutdown, for now, many members celebrated passing the continuing resolution on Thursday before leaving the Capitol for the weekend. But some also indicated they thought the short-term approach was ultimately harmful.

"The only thing worse than running the government under a continuing resolution is a government shutdown," Leahy said. "We appear no closer to getting an agreement on full-year appropriations bills. We have to complete these negotiations."

But the road to passing a budget will likely remain fraught. Democrats hold a small majority in both chambers of Congress, giving Republicans few avenues to force their issues front and center.

The small group that delayed the vote on this most recent continuing resolution might not have succeeded in weakening vaccine mandates as they set out to do, but they did manage to dominate the news cycle and win a concession from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the form of a vote on an amendment to the continuing resolution. The amendment was guaranteed to fail—Schumer likely wouldn't have permitted it otherwise—but it allowed the group of Republicans to avoid forcing a politically unpopular shutdown in defiance of Leader McConnell, while showing their constituents that they're fighting the mandates.

The fact that the budget process is susceptible to hijacking is lost on no one, and future efforts could be derailed by similar tactics. Schumer, a New York Democrat, heeded that danger in a floor speech on Wednesday.

"If every member of this chamber were to use the threat of a shutdown to secure concessions on their own interests, that would lead to chaos," Schumer said.

Congress long-term budget remains elusive
The early morning sun strikes the U.S. Capitol November 6, 2006 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images