Government shutdown threats have been normalized. Here’s how.

Why we find ourselves on the precipice again and again … and again.

Rangers stand near two official vehicles blocking a road. A sign reads, “Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service facility is closed.”

US Park Rangers stand at the closed gate to Joshua Tree National Park in California during the 2013 government shutdown. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

These days, the threat of a government shutdown is as commonplace as lawmakers skipping town for recess.

This congressional term alone, the US has faced fears of a government shutdown no fewer than four times as lawmakers have failed to agree on long-term funding bills and passed last-minute, short-term patches instead.

In 2019, the US saw its longest shutdown yet when former President Donald Trump tried to wield it as a political weapon in order to procure funding for his southern border wall. And overall, shutdowns took place more frequently in the 2010s than the prior decade.

For context, Congress must pass 12 funding bills each year that provide money for everything from the Department of Defense to the Food and Drug Administration. If they fail to do so by an end-of-September deadline, either they approve a short-term bill that buys them more time and keeps agencies funded or the government shuts down.

It’s now been almost six full months since the start of the fiscal year in October, and Congress has yet to approve multiple full-year appropriations bills. On Tuesday, lawmakers announced a deal to keep the government open and finally pass several of the remaining longer-term measures, potentially quelling shutdown fears for now.

Every time there’s another funding deadline, however, concerns about a potential shutdown ramp up. That’s because funding bills, like all legislation, are subject to growing polarization in Congress — and a faction of Republicans, in particular, benefits politically from threatening to shut down the government.

The causes of shutdowns have changed

Shutdowns aren’t totally new.

Modern-day shutdowns began in the 1980s after Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued an opinion stating that government agencies couldn’t keep operating if Congress hadn’t explicitly approved the funds they needed to do so. A handful of shutdowns happened in the 1970s as well, but they didn’t really close the government in the same way that current ones do.

Multiple shutdowns of the 1970s and ’80s also centered on specific disagreements over spending, such as line items in legislation, versus less related ideological arguments about policy. (Abortion funding, a crime bill and welfare expansion were all factors in different shutdowns, however.)

A major turning point in how shutdowns have been weaponized occurred in the 1990s. In December 1995, House Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, initiated a lengthy 21-day shutdown in order to make a point about budget reforms. At the time, they argued that President Bill Clinton should develop a budget based on more conservative projections from the Congressional Budget Office versus other estimates made by the White House Office of Management and Budget. This was notable because the standoff wasn’t just about a particular spending figure, but a broader policy disagreement.

The 1995–1996 shutdown was also widely viewed as harming Republicans, who held both the House and the Senate, by making them appear dysfunctional and unable to govern.

While Republicans only lost two House seats and added two Senate seats in the following election, Clinton was viewed as benefiting from the shutdown debacle and coasting to a landslide reelection victory, in part because of how it hurt the GOP’s image, Molly Ball wrote for the Atlantic.

There’s some debate about how much damage Republicans ultimately suffered. Seemingly scarred from the experience, however, they avoided a shutdown for nearly two decades afterward — until a wave of Tea Party members focused on fiscal responsibility were elected in 2010. In 2013, these members pushed for a 16-day government shutdown and said they wouldn’t approve spending bills unless they defunded the Affordable Care Act.

That shutdown heralded the beginning of our current era. Since 2013, there have been three shutdowns, and many more times when a shutdown was threatened.

Throughout this time, the GOP has explicitly used spending bills as leverage for other policy goals — building on the 2013 and 1996 precedents. In 2018, Democrats similarly used this strategy to urge action on immigration reforms. It was at the end of that year that former President Donald Trump called for Republicans to shut down the government if funding wasn’t approved for his border wall.

Trump’s public support for the 2018–2019 shutdown, which lasted 35 days and became the longest in US history, underscored how making these threats — and using them as evidence for their base voters that they’re fighting for their priorities — has become incentivized for Republicans.

The political motives for threatening shutdowns, briefly explained

All told, there have been 21 government shutdowns over the past 50 years. They’re more likely to take place when there’s a split Congress, or when the party that controls Congress is different from the party holding the White House.

In recent years, partisanship has only gotten worse, increasing lawmakers’ incentives to use shutdown threats and other disruptive tactics. Because of this polarization, lawmakers have become more willing to play to their base voters, with the hopes of rallying them for the next election. And due to gerrymandering in states like Florida and Tennessee, for example, Republicans now have more districts that are GOP-leaning.

“Members of the House, particularly, have less incentive to compromise with their Democratic colleagues because they’re more worried about a primary challenge from their flank than they are losing their seat to the other party,” George Washington University political management professor Todd Belt tells Vox.

Between the two parties, Republicans are also more likely to use these tactics than Democrats because they’re in line with conservative political commitments to cutting spending. As a result, the furthest-right members of the GOP — such as the Freedom Caucus — are often among the most vocal in threatening a shutdown over issues such as immigration.

Additionally, there’s some evidence that lawmakers are no longer being punished at the ballot box for using such disruptive tactics. Voters may be unhappy when a shutdown is happening, but they might potentially forget about it by the time the next election rolls around. For example, Republicans were blamed in polls for the major shutdowns in 2019 and 2013, but there’s little evidence it harmed them in the subsequent national elections, according to NBC News.

“We live in an increasingly noisy political environment. We have more crises and more breaking news and a louder political environment than we did 10, 20, 30 years ago,” says Bipartisan Policy Center senior analyst Andrew Lautz. “You could see backlash electorally, but … I’m not sure how much difference these budgeting fights make at the polls.”

Congress likes to procrastinate

Congress rarely passes funding bills on time, and the reliance on short-term bills — also known as continuing resolutions, or CRs — is part of the reason it often feels like we’re regularly on the verge of a shutdown. Since a short-term bill might only last a few weeks or months, any time one expires, the country risks shutting down.

This term, Congress has already used multiple CRs, renewing them in November, January, and February. “I’m done normalizing this dysfunction,” first-term Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) griped last September when asked to vote for a short-term patch.

Because of polarization, Congress is also passing fewer bills, on average, over time. As a result, appropriations bills are more contentious because lawmakers may try to add in other policy riders, knowing a funding bill is guaranteed to pass.

“I think that one consequence of it getting harder to legislate generally is this idea that the discretionary appropriations process ends up bearing more of Congress’s political conflicts than it used to, because of the sense that this is the only thing we’re going to do,” Molly Reynolds, a procedural expert at Brookings, tells Vox.

Shutdowns still cause real damage

Even though they’ve been normalized, shutdowns and the threat of shutdowns aren’t good.

They’ve cost the economy billions of dollars in recent years, and they create significant uncertainty for federal workers. “The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the five-week partial government shutdown in 2018 and 2019 reduced economic output by $11 billion in the following two quarters — including $3 billion that the U.S. economy never regained,” a report from Senate Democrats noted.

“They only serve to hurt the economy, they scramble federal departments and agencies, and they lead to a waste of federal dollars,” says Lautz. Even when a threatened shutdown doesn’t occur, agencies still have to prepare for the possibility, taking time and resources away from implementing policies and programs they’d otherwise be focused on.

Shutdowns also have an outsize impact on government employees. During a shutdown, tens of thousands of federal workers are furloughed or forced to work without pay, and prominent services like immigration courts, food inspections, and National Park access get curtailed or delayed. Additionally, thousands of federal contractors may never recoup back pay from shutdowns after they end. And certain services are left dangerously understaffed.

Despite these consequences, lawmakers still seem plenty comfortable bringing the country to the brink again and again and again.


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