The bleak reason why America is always on the verge of a government shutdown

A broken Congress returns to a broken Washington to decide whether to commit economic suicide. Must be Tuesday.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Tell me if you’ve heard this story before.

A bunch of lawmakers return to Washington. They’ve got a tight deadline and an unruly crew of right-wing hardliners to deal with. The Republican leadership wants to go it alone, but understands the party is going to have to deal with Democrats if it wants to keep the government’s lights on. And looming over all of this is the debt ceiling, a time bomb that could take out much of the world economy if it is allowed to go off.

It’s a story that repeated over and over again during the Obama administration — at least after Republicans gained control over the House of Representatives. It’s a story that’s about to repeat once more. Congress returns to work Tuesday in a Capitol that can barely perform the basic functions of government. It must raise the debt ceiling and fund the government by the end of the month.

The 2013 government shutdown had two parents — irreconcilable disagreements between the two parties and a Constitution that is completely unequipped to deal with such disagreements. In theory, the first of these two obstacles should have been lifted last January, when a single party assumed control of the White House and both houses of Congress. But the threat of a shutdown looms even as America is in a moment of single-party rule.

“If we have to close down our government, we are building that wall,” Trump said at a recent rally, suggesting that he would veto legislation to fund the government unless it includes money to build a barrier on the Mexican border. A recent poll found that a majority of Republicans would support such a shutdown as a way to force construction of that wall. Trump later suggested he may back off this immediate demand so lawmakers can make a short-term budget deal.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), chair of the stridently conservative Freedom Caucus, told ABC News that he believes his caucus could support a short-term measure that funds the government without funding the wall, but hinted at a shutdown fight in December or January after the immediate political need to fund relief for Hurricane Harvey victims subsides.

Trump embraced Paul Ryan’s agenda out of expedience. It’s the racism that gets him out of bed in the morning.

Then there’s Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), the scourge of the elderly recast as Trump’s feckless babysitter by the cruel hand of the Electoral College. “I don’t think anyone’s interested in having a shutdown,” Ryan declared, one day after the President of the United States said he’s interested in having a shutdown.

Even as Ryan denies any interest in a shutdown, he has still refused to give up on his signature proposal to repeal Medicare and replace it with a glorified voucher. A budget resolution approved by the House Budget Committee last July includes Ryan’s Medicare vouchers, and it assumes that the Medicare eligibility age is raised from 65 to 67.

If House Republicans insist on these politically toxic changes before the government is funded, they can forget about Democratic support for legislation funding the government. They can’t even be sure they will get enough Republican support to pass a bill. Trump himself once labeled the Ryan budget, with its Medicare vouchers, as a “death wish” for the GOP.

The challenge of the Obama administration — irreconcilable divides between the two parties and a Constitution that doesn’t allow these divides to be overcome — may have recreated itself within the GOP. That is not a path towards stable government.

An American problem

The U.S. Constitution is a very unusual document — and not in a good way. It locks officeholders into power even after it is clear they are not suitable for public office, and it allows warring factions to grind governance to a halt.

If Trump decides to veto any bill that doesn’t fund his border wall, and Congress will not pass a bill that funds the wall, the Constitution contains no reasonably feasible way to remove him from office. The two methods that could potentially remove Trump from power, impeachment and the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, have never successfully be used against a president in American history.

Similarly, if Congress and the president reach an impasse, as President Obama and the GOP-controlled House frequently did during his presidency, there is no mechanism whatsoever to force a new election to replace the old Congress. If the 2013 government shutdown had spiraled out of control, with both sides digging in and unwilling to step away from mutually exclusive positions, than the government simply would have remained unfunded until a new Congress took office in 2015.

Contrast this structure with our neighbor to the north. In 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper presided over a divided government. His Conservative Party controlled a plurality of the seats in parliament but not a majority, and his proposed budget couldn’t pass the legislature.

Like many modern democracies, however, Canada’s system has a fail-safe for budget impasses. If a budget bill is defeated, that immediately triggers a new election (the 2011 election was actually triggered by a voter of no confidence in Harper led by his opposition, but a new election was widely viewed as inevitable). And so Canada held an election, Harper’s party won a majority, and the Canadian parliament was able to enact a budget and move on to other things.

Canada’s parliamentary system differs from the United States in another, even more important way. Rather than choosing its legislature and its chief executive in independent elections, as the United States does, in a parliamentary system, the people elect the legislature and then the legislature chooses the executive. Parliamentary democracies are more stable than presidential democracies because they avoid a situation where the legislature and the executive are controlled by rival factions that can’t work with each other.

As the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz wrote, presidential democracies can tend towards military coups, as an impasse can potentially continue until the nation’s armed forces are “tempted to intervene as a mediating power.”

The two GOPs

To be clear, a shutdown isn’t certain or even likely at the end of September. The investment bank Goldman Sachs, which predicted a 50 chance of a shutdown a few weeks ago, recently reduced that likelihood to 35 percent due to the urgent need to provide relief to Hurricane Harvey victims and terrible political optics of waging a shutdown fight while a major city is underwater.

Yet, even if a shutdown is avoided in September, it is likely that Congress will only push this debate off for a few weeks or a few months. And, with each new battle over how and when to fund the government, conservative interest groups will grow more antsy and more insistent. Trump may feel more and more pressure to please his base — or even simply to force a confrontation that he could potentially “win.”

Think of the rest of the Trump presidency as a series of dice rolls. It’s not likely that any individual toss of the dice will lead to a shutdown. But if you throw the dice enough, you’re eventually going to get unlucky.

There is something very bizarre about the fact that this is happening at a moment when the same party controls all the levers of power. Some of that, of course, can be attributed to the human chaos factory that is Donald Trump. But much of it stems from a tension deep within the GOP.

The Republican Party is changing. Put broadly, what was once an anti-government party willing to exploit racism to accomplish its agenda is now becoming a white nationalist party that still clings to austerity. That may sound like a distinction without a meaningful difference — but this difference in emphasis drives what, exactly, party leaders are willing to go to the mat for.

Speaker Ryan’s agenda of Medicare vouchers, deep cuts to Medicaid and food stamps, and tax cuts for upper-income earners — the agenda that dominated Republican politics during the Obama years — is deeply unpopular. It’s so unpopular that pretty much the only demographic that supports it is wealthy Republican donors.

Faced with such unpopular ideas, Trump smartly campaigned against them during his presidential race. “Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that,” the real estate developer said in 2015. He also labeled the Ryan Budget a “stupid” mix of proposals that includes “everything that you don’t want.”

As a candidate, Trump much more closely resembled racist demagogues like George Wallace, Jimmy Byrnes, or “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who dominated Southern politics for much of their careers. Cruel and unforgiving to racial minorities but generous to poor whites, men like Wallace, Byrnes, and Tillman celebrated the government’s activist role — just so long as such activism only benefited the right people.

“I admit I am a New Dealer,” then-Senator Byrnes proclaimed in 1936 after opponent accused him a socialism. “And if it takes money away from the few who have controlled the country and give it to the average man, I am going back to Washington to help the president work for the people of South Carolina and of the country.”

Of course, as president, Trump presided over a merger between the GOP’s anti-government and white nationalist factions instead of waging a hostile takeover against the Ryanists. The accidental president appointed a fiscal hardliner as his budget director, and Trump’s first annual budget would devastate the poor, the disabled, and the sick.

But even if Trump is ideologically flexible enough to campaign on preserving Medicaid and then back a Trumpcare bill that would eviscerate the program, he still retains one core conviction. Trump’s reaction to the racist violence in Charlottesville was celebrated by white supremacists. He’s threatened a government shutdown over a wall that’s supposed to keep Mexican nationals out of the United States, not over cuts to food stamps or his plans to cut low-income housing. Trump embraced Paul Ryan’s agenda out of expedience. It’s the racism that gets him out of bed in the morning.

Because of this divide between unpopular Ayn Rand acolytes and ascendant white nationalists, Republicans have little margin for error when trying to pass legislation to fund the government. Democrats won’t sign on to either agenda. Trump is prone to erratic demands that marginal Republicans may not support. And when disagreements arise, as they inevitably will when hundreds of men and women must negotiate something as complicated as the federal government’s funding levels, there is no common ideology that the party can rally behind to find unity.

The price of dysfunction

Over the past week, Republican lawmakers have signaled they’re not eager for a budget showdown this month that could result in a government shutdown. It’s still possible that America muddles through the next three months — perhaps, even the next three-and-a-half years — without a shutdown.

The Ryan and Trump factions could hold together — funding a border wall, stripping health care from the poor and the elderly, gutting food stamps, kicking thousands of people out of their homes, and using the savings to provide big tax cuts to men like Donald Trump. That’s not a future that many Americans want, but it would avoid an outright government shutdown.

Or the uneasy status quo could persist. Congress could string together a series of temporary funding bills and other continuing resolutions to keep the government’s lights on. Trump could keep backing away from his more outlandish threats. Ryan’s caucus could decide that Medicare vouchers and dismantling much of the American welfare state was always a pipe dream.

But even in the best of all possible worlds, where four years of continuing resolutions leave funding more or less at the same levels that existed at the end of the Obama administration, there is a real cost to this kind of governance.

For one thing, the budget process includes two gate-keeping processes that are supposed to provide a comprehensive review of how the government is spending its money, what works well, where we should increase our investments, and where its time to make cuts. The first is the president’s annual budget request, where the various arms of the executive branch take stock of their own ledgers and evaluate, at a fairly granular level, how money is being spent. The second is the Congressional budget resolution, where the House and Senate Budget Committees study the president’s request and make their own judgments about high-level budgeting decisions.

But these processes can only work as intended if they are led by men and women who care about good government. Instead, the presidential process is led by Trump and his tea partying budget director Mick Mulvaney, and the congressional process is still largely dominated by Paul Ryan’s priorities. Both Mulvaney and Ryan are far more inclined to produce right-wing fantasy budgets than to do a serious dive into how individual government programs should be funded.

In theory, the House and Senate are supposed to follow up the budget resolution with appropriations bills that reflect a carefully thought-out agenda. In reality, however, the federal government is increasingly funded by continuing resolutions — bills that simply maintain past budgeting decisions or that may tweak those decisions without a full, comprehensive review. And even when Congress does manage to pass regular appropriations bills, these bills often are delayed until after several months of continuing resolutions. As a result, federal agencies struggle to make plans for the future because they have no way of knowing how much funding they will have for a particular fiscal year until well into that year.

The government may yet avoid a shutdown, but that doesn’t mean that everything is humming along nicely. There is still a real risk of a deeply ideological agenda becoming law. And there’s an equally real risk that we simply plod forward, spending money the way we have in the past, without stopping to think about whether any of it is a good idea.

The budget process, of course, functions best when there are people running government who actually believe in the government’s mission. Sadly, America no longer has that luxury.