Congress Delays Federal Funding Fight After Brief Shutdown

Published February 5, 2018

The U.S. Congress approved a resolution extending a deadline to set new spending levels after Democratic Party members tried to use the temporary lapse of funding to secure changes to immigration law.

A September 2017 continuing resolution temporarily funding government activities expired on January 19, before Congress could agree on spending levels.

The minority Democratic Party initially refused to approve any measures without policy riders legalizing undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors.

After U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promised to consider the Democrats’ proposals, the minority party ended the shutdown. On January 22, Congress reached an agreement to fund the government through February 8.

In 1980 and 1981, U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued two legal opinions  determining federal government agencies cannot operate or provide services if Congress does not authorize spending, effectively creating the “shutdown” scenario.

‘A Political Game’

Richard Ebeling, a professor of economics at The Citadel, says the weekend-long shutdown was more about politics and donors than pennies and dollars.

“The government shutdown was a political game that has been used by Democrats to try to get the upper hand in establishing their position for the upcoming midterm election,” Ebeling said. “They call it a shutdown, but as many in the media have pointed out, very little is shut down. The national security agencies, the military, the entitlement programs, and a variety of other services basically keep operating.”

‘Budget Dysfunction’

Justin Bogie, a senior policy analyst for fiscal affairs at The Heritage Foundation, says the disagreements obscure a bipartisan desire to spend more money.

“There are several reasons for the current budget dysfunction,” Bogie said. “The main driver of the continuing resolutions is that members on both sides of the aisle in Congress generally don’t like the current discretionary budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

“Most lawmakers feel that defense spending should be higher than the caps,” Bogie said. “Democrats feel that any increase in defense spending should be accompanied by an equal increase to non-defense spending. So far, Republicans have refused to increase non-defense by the same amount as defense, and this is why there hasn’t been a broader spending deal.”

Asking Basic Questions

Ebeling says members of Congress should ask themselves tough questions about the role of government.

“If this type of tension and controversy is to be diminished in any significant way, it requires asking something that has increasingly divided our country: ‘What do you believe America is about?'” Ebeling said. “Do you believe it’s a society based on individual liberty and primarily free enterprise, with government more a securer of our rights than a redistributor of income; or do you believe the that government has to expend money on all of these programs because people can’t take care of themselves? Are people constantly victimized by others, and therefore government needs to take care of them as well?”

‘Regular Order’ Solution

Ebeling says the cycle of continuing resolutions and shutdowns is likely to repeat.

 “Until some decision is made, these types of stopgap funding crises, make-believe shutdowns, will likely continue in the foreseeable future, with no solutions to the debt problem.”

Bogie says Congress can stop repeating the budget deadline fight, if it chooses to do so.

“The best thing that Congress could do to avoid this problem is to follow the regular-order budget process,” Bogie said. “This means passing the congressional budget resolutions on time, passing individual appropriations bills before the start of the new fiscal year, and reauthorizing programs or discontinuing unneeded programs whose authorizations have lapsed.”