early and often

We Could Be Headed for a Record-Breaking Government Shutdown

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, looking powerless. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When partisan control of Washington is divided there is often a risk of government shutdown at the end of the federal fiscal year (September 30). Sometimes shutdown scares are just that: a wake-up call to feuding or procrastinating lawmakers to finish enacting appropriations before the money runs out and nonessential government functions close. Frequently “stopgap” short-term funding measures are passed to provide more time to cut deals. And typically most appropriations are finalized as part of big “omnibus” bills with hundreds of little deals and non-germane policy amendments embedded. It’s the ultimate sausage-making enterprise made messier when the two major parties are waging symbolic battles on a broad front, as they most definitely are right now.

Twelve days before fiscal year 2023 ends, the odds of a shutdown are very high, and this one could last a while (of the ten government shutdowns since 1980, six lasted no more than three days). Divided party control of Washington is only one factor. The bigger problem is confined to the narrowly Republican-controlled House, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy is perpetually being held hostage by hard-core conservatives who have the power to take away his gavel via a motion-to-vacate-the-chair maneuver (a device McCarthy was forced to sanction in order to win his initial election as Speaker). With both alleged “runway spending” and alleged McCarthy/RINO coziness with Democrats being huge causes célèbres on the far right, the Speaker’s four-vote majority dooms him to a perpetual choice between losing his position and behaving irresponsibly.

Yes, McCarthy managed to pull off enactment of a debt-limit compromise in early June, mostly because the White House gave him a hand via highly visible concessions; it certainly helped that the GOP’s corporate allies placed intense pressure on Republicans to avoid an economically ruinous debt default. But that dubious triumph for McCarthy has made the right flank of his conference all the more determined to force him to go to the mattresses over spending, taking positions no Democrats can possibly accept.

The situation is more dire than ever because House rebels are making both substantive and procedural demands, not only insisting on deep domestic spending cuts and draconian immigration legislation as part of any deal but also opposing the “omnibus” packaging of appropriations that makes it possible to keep the government open (1996 marked the last time Congress was able to complete individual appropriations bills in their entirety, in no small part because of policy battles over individual bills conservatives regularly launch). With time running out, McCarthy is struggling to come up with a stopgap spending formula that unites his conference while giving it a bit of leverage for negotiations with Senate Democrats and the While House. It’s not looking good, as Politico Playbook explains:

After working through the weekend to bridge differences between their centrist and conservative wings, House Republican leaders announced last night that they had a deal that could unite the GOP behind a short-term spending patch and shore up their negotiating position with Democrats ahead of a potential Oct. 1 shutdown …

As details of the deal hashed out by leaders of the Main Street Caucus and House Freedom Caucus trickled out, a bevy of conservative hardliners piped up with various versions of “Hell No” — rejecting a measure that would impose an 8% cut to most non-defense programs and implement an array of GOP border policies while extending government funding for a month.

The proposal is far too extreme to attract any Democratic votes, and if McCarthy even gestured in the direction of bipartisanship, an effort to oust him as Speaker would become very likely, as hardliner Matt Gaetz has made clear, according to Axios: “Gaetz said a stopgap spending bill to avoid government shutdown would be an ‘automatic trigger’ for a motion to vacate, calling for help from the 20 conservatives who resisted McCarthy’s speakership.”

Cooperation from the House, unfortunately, is required to enact any sort of appropriations measure. Even if McCarthy is somehow able to herd his cats and pass something like the proposal worked out by this weekend’s negotiators, it will just be the starting point for talks with Senate Democrats and the White House with the two parties far apart and a solid bloc of Republicans all but ruling out any compromise at all. If the debt ceiling negotiations provide any precedent, we can also be sure that McCarthy and other congressional Republicans will have to deal with grandstanding presidential candidates blasting them for insufficient toughness and all but cheering the prospect of an extended shutdown of the hated federal government.

It’s not just a matter of time running out before September 30, either. It’s unclear what will change in October or November to make a deal more likely, as both parties hunker down for a highly contentions 2024 election year. Yes, some Republicans fear inviting blame for a government shutdown. But in an atmosphere where the GOP’s presidential candidates are casually batting around proposals to permanently close multiple federal agencies and gut the “deep state,” it could take a while for public unhappiness with a shutdown to have any effect. Certainly Kevin McCarthy’s not going to throw away his gavel in an act of patriotic self-sacrifice when waiting out an extended shutdown might present more promising opportunities.

So get ready for images of a darkened Capitol and locked gates at parks and other federal facilities, along with furloughs of federal employees and speculation as to when or whether they will be made whole. Unless something unexpected happens, this could be the government shutdown that threatens the 2018–19 record of a 35-day hiatus, giving Americans something to think about next year as they contemplate continuing or breaking this latest stretch of divided party control.

More on politics

See All
We Could Be Headed for a Record-Breaking Government Shutdown