The fact that the House and Senate passed a continuing resolution this week to keep the government operating until December 9 was not exactly a surprise. Avoiding it was newsworthy only because shutdowns—which used to be so rare that they were never mentioned seriously inside the Washington Beltway—have now become commonplace, politically acceptable tactics.
There were five reasons why a shutdown didn’t happen this time.
First, it would have occurred about five weeks before the 2016 election, and electorally vulnerable representatives and senators who wanted to be home campaigning would have had to stay in Washington instead of being back in their districts or states.
Second, the shutdown would have occurred just as early voting began in many of these states: It would likely have been the most pressing event on those voters’ minds. And even for those ballots that aren’t cast until Election Day, there wouldn’t have been enough time for congressional Republicans—who were most likely to be blamed for this shutdown because of the past ones they have initiated—to change the subject.
Third, a shutdown this October would have completely invalidated the idea that House and Senate Republicans can make the trains run on time on Capitol Hill. This could have been an especially disastrous issue for Senate Republicans who are desperately trying to hold onto their narrow majority.
Fourth, a shutdown would have put the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, in a tough spot. Trump would either have had to support a Republican leadership that seemed out of control; would have had to criticize the GOP leadership—and in the process put the Republican House and Senate majorities in further jeopardy; or blame the Democrats, possibly alienating undecided voters.
Finally, the shutdown was averted because Democrats were willing to accept an alternative procedure for getting funds to Flint, Michigan. They accepted that these funds would be collected at a later date, instead of insisting that they be provided immediately in the continuing resolution.
By accepting the collection of these funds in separate legislation to be supposedly considered right after the election, Democrats realized that they could take credit for a win that would allow them to score the points they need with key constituencies. Republicans, meanwhile, also felt that the Democrat-approved funding delay was to their benefit because they could campaign on not actually having provided the money.
But the fact that a shutdown didn’t occur in October doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t happen when the continuing resolution expires in two months. In fact, the same five issues that made a shutdown unlikely now will make it likely in December.
After the election is over, the impact of a shutdown on voters will no longer be of concern to elected officials. This will be especially true for those representatives and senators who won’t be returning to Washington next year for one reason or another.
Of course, except in the very unlikely event that there’s a tie in the Electoral College that causes the House and Senate to select the President and vice president, respectively, the presidential election will be over, and legislators’ accompanying worries about the impact of a shutdown on its outcome will have vanished with it.
House Republicans, in particular, may, therefore, decide that the deal they agreed to in late September needs to be re-examined in the lame-duck session. They could, for example, decide that all they agreed to was a vote on funding for Flint and that they are still free to vote against the deal when the full legislation is considered. This would be particularly likely if the GOP Senate majority is replaced next year by a Democratic one and that any deal with outgoing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is no longer valid.
As difficult as it might be to put the politics aside, the agreement that prevented the government shutdown does have a few good and bad policy implications.
The worst—and it’s not even a close call—is that all federal agencies and departments covered in the continuing resolution will, yet again, be funded with a short-term appropriation that will seriously disrupt their operations. As it has in the past, this will provide additional material for those in Congress and elsewhere who want to show that government activities are inefficient.
The good is that funds to cover several issues needs facing American citizens—like $1.1 billion in funding to deal with the Zika virus and $500 million in flood relief for a variety of areas of the country—were included in this bill. In a previous era, both of these would have been dealt with long ago (the President made the original Zika request back in February and the situation has only gotten worse since then), but at least the funds have finally been provided.
The Flint situation is both good and bad. The good is that, at least in theory, Congress has agreed to provide as much as $170 million to deal with it. But that agreement is set to “authorize” rather than appropriate that money and some members of Congress who signed on to the deal to avoid a shutdown may eventually vote against any bill that would subsequently actually make them available.
That means that nothing has really been settled. Congress will very likely still be arguing over Flint in December and another shutdown may have to be threatened before the funding becomes a reality.