This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
The beginning of Summer means we are just over three months away from the end of fiscal 2019. In the old days, that would have meant Congress was moving along on appropriations bills and something would be on the President’s desk for signature before September 30, 2019. In 2019, that is more of a fairy tale and about as likely to happen as pigs flying. When we combine the need to lift the debt ceiling and raise the Defense/Non-Defense discretionary spending caps, divided control of Congress, intraparty disagreements on the right and left on how to proceed, partisanship, a lack of clear guidance from the White House, and the upcoming presidential election, the outcome could be an end-of-fiscal-year mess that results in a shutdown that is far worse than the record 35-day partial shutdown we saw this year. For federal workers and contractors, the most immediate consequence would be no pay, before many of them have recovered from the mess the Congress and the White House created earlier in the year.
There is a potential measure that could help that has received bipartisan support in the Senate — the Government Shutdowns Accountability Act. Several provisions of the proposed legislation would go a long way toward reducing or eliminating the end-of-fiscal-year madness that seems to afflict us now. The Act would make it clear that members of Congress would be expected to be here doing their jobs during a shutdown. They would not be able to travel home on the government’s dime, nor could they use campaign funds to circumvent the restriction. Here are the key provisions:
Allow employees who are not working due to a shutdown to obtain outside employment without prior approval of their agencies. Conflict of interest and other restrictions would still apply. Any pay the employee earned in such employment would not be considered in calculating back pay that might be owed.
Official travel outside the National Capital Region (except to return to DC) would be prohibited. That includes members of Congress traveling home to their districts. Use of campaign funds for such travel would also be subject to the same restrictions.
House and Senate rules would be changed so that “it shall not be in order to move to proceed to any matter except for (A) a measure making appropriations for the fiscal year during which the Government shutdown begins; (B) emergency legislation; or (C) a motion relating to determining or obtaining the presence of a quorum.” Recessing or adjourning for more than 23 hours would also not be in order. Waiving the restrictions would require a two-thirds vote of the members of the applicable House of Congress.
Other pending Bills would provide for automatic continuing resolutions and for continuation of federal employee pay during a shutdown. If we really want to see an end to shutdown madness, here are a few changes that should be enacted into law:
Continuation of pay for federal workers and contractors. Putting the financial security of millions of people in jeopardy simply because Congress and the President cannot do their jobs is wrong. Using those folks and their families as political pawns must stop.
The restrictions in the Government Shutdowns Accountability Act should be enacted, with the addition of provisions to place congressional pay in escrow until a shutdown is over. There are questions concerning the constitutionality of not paying members of Congress, but placing the funds in escrow may be just enough to pass constitutional muster. It appears that wasting billions of dollars and depriving workers of their pay and peace of mind is not enough, so something that makes it personal for Congress seems to be the next logical step. Requiring Members to stay in town and in session, and making travel home on their own money during a shutdown might be an effective way of putting pressure on the process.
Eliminate the debt ceiling. Congress already controls federal spending through the appropriations process. Every appropriated dollar is approved by Congress and the President. All the debt ceiling does is limit whether or not the United States of America can pay the bills it has already incurred. Imagine what would happen if you and I decided we would run up credit card debt and decide later if we think it is appropriate to pay the bill. The debt ceiling is a relic of World War I bond issues and serves little, if any, useful purpose today. It is primarily used (by both parties) as a bludgeon to get what they want from the other party. If it actually made a difference, the national debt probably would not be $22.4 trillion and rising.
Develop a mechanism for continue funding automatically. This fix is not as simple as it might seem. Both parties have an interest at various times in using shutdowns as leverage and they have different views on what an automatic funding mechanism would do. The most logical move would be to continue funding at the last level that was appropriated. The End Government Shutdowns Act (S. 104 and H.R. 791), co-sponsored in the House by nine Republicans and two Democrats and in the Senate by 33 Republicans, would continue funding for 120 days after a lapse in appropriations, then reduce funding by one percent every 90 days until a continuing resolution or appropriations Bill passed. Another Bill – the Ban Government Shutdowns Act (H.R. 809) – co-sponsored by 11 Democrats, would have the same effect, but without the automatic one percent cuts after the first 120 days.
Prior to the last shutdown, I thought it was likely that the shutdown would be averted before the House changed hands. That was the logical outcome that made sense. It did not happen. What we have seen in the past 20 years is a steady degradation of the congressional appropriations process. At first the idea the Congress would not pass appropriations Bills was considered to be a problem, then it became the norm. Sequestration was enacted by the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a way to force Congress to act or face consequences that were so severe that they would not allow them to happen. We saw what happened with that. My misplaced optimism last year has been replaced with pessimism this year. I believe there is a good chance we could see another shutdown. An automatic continuing resolution process may be the only way to keep shutdowns from becoming routine. There may not be time on the legislative calendars to enact one of these Bills, but my hope is that the legislative and executive branches will see that it is the interests of both to keep the government open or, at the very least, make certain that federal workers and contractors are not victims of the process again.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.