Is an automatic CR the answer to government shutdowns?

In the wake of the longest government shutdown in history, pushes to ensure one never happens again, primarily through an automatic continuing resolution, are p...

In the wake of the longest government shutdown in history, pushes to ensure one never happens again, primarily through an automatic continuing resolution, are picking up momentum. The Government Accountability Office recommended this as a permanent solution as far back as 1981.

Now, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have all recently proposed bills that would institute an automatic CR in the event of another appropriations lapse. But just what do these bills do, and do they have a chance?

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)

Portman’s bill, the End Government Shutdowns Act, currently has the most support, with a total of 19 cosponsors, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). It would provide for an automatic CR in the event of a lapse in appropriations. If a full appropriations bill is not passed in 120 days, it would then cut funding across the board for all agencies by 1 percent. Another 1 percent cut would follow every 90 days thereafter.

“Moving forward, we should end government shutdowns for good,” Portman said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will accomplish that goal, providing lawmakers with more time to reach a responsible resolution to budget negotiations, giving federal workers and their families more stability, and ensuring we avoid disruptions that ultimately hurt our economy, taxpayers and working families.”

Rep. Troy Balderson (R-N.J.) introduced a companion bill in the House on Jan. 28.

Paul’s bill, the Government Shutdown Prevention Act, would operate similarly, but without the 120-day grace period. Instead, it would immediately impose a 1 percent across-the-board cut, to be followed by further cuts of 1 percent every 90 days.

This is not the first time Paul has proposed this bill. He introduced it in 2011, 2013 and 2018. Portman’s bill is also recycled from earlier versions, introduced in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2017.

Warner is the newcomer to team auto-CR, with the Stop STUPIDITY (Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In The Coming Years) Act. His bill differs from the others in that it doesn’t contain automatic budget cuts at any point, but would continue at current funding levels indefinitely.

But Travis Sharp, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan think-tank focused on defense budgets, said the point of government shutdowns is to inflict pain. Not maliciously, but deliberately, strategically, to create a political uproar to get Congress to do its job.

Warner’s bill would take that pain away from federal workers, and place it where many believe it belongs: On the politicians. Under his bill, the automatic CR would not extend to the Executive Office of the President or Congress and its various agencies. Neither would be funded until full appropriations were passed.

“The theory here seems to be that if you hurt the people who seem to be not doing their jobs, then that will make them more likely to reach a compromise,” Sharp said.

Weighing bills’ pros and cons

But Sharp warned there could be downsides to this provision, political optics aside. Congress and the President must negotiate to end a lapse in appropriations, he said, and depriving them of the use of their staff and resources could exacerbate any impasse.

And the other bills are not without detriments either.

Mark Warner
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)

Sharp said, in the worst case scenario of a full fiscal year of continuing resolutions, agencies would receive only 97 percent of their current budget in the last two months of the fiscal year under Portman’s bill. For Paul’s, that number would be 96 percent in the last quarter. And the fact that the cuts would be across the board, not targeted, means agencies’ pain would only increase. He used the Defense Department as an example.

“DoD really dislikes across the board cuts because it doesn’t allow military officials to implement them in a way that’s most consistent with strategy and what’s happening in the real world,” Sharp said. “They want to be given the flexibility to make those choices rather than being told that every single account must be cut across the board by 1 percent, no exceptions.”

For reference, he said that experts expect a $750 billion budget for DoD in 2020. If Paul’s plan were implemented, and appropriations lapsed for the whole fiscal year, DoD would lose $30 billion. To put that in perspective, that’s the cost of three aircraft carriers, though it would be divided equally among every budget item across the department.

That could seriously impact the military’s ability to respond to real-world considerations. For example, Sharp said if the situation on the Korean peninsula were to hypothetically deteriorate, this would prevent the military from moving around money to increase military exercises in response.

Further, an automatic CR could have unforeseen consequences to parliamentary procedures. In the case of Portman’s or Paul’s bills, Sharp said it could be possible for a small number of lawmakers with common cause to weaponize the cuts implicit in those versions of the automatic CR as a backdoor to reducing government spending across the board.

Even under Warner’s bill, government spending could hypothetically be limited indefinitely — especially in the Senate, where individual lawmakers have more power to influence the budget process. For example, in February 2018, Paul single-handedly instigated a six-hour government shutdown by objecting to a procedural motion to speed up a vote on a budget agreement.

But in this case, Sharp thinks the pros outweigh the cons.

“All three bills would benefit the federal workforce by preventing a future government shutdown,” Sharp said. “So in that sense, all three bills are better than the status quo from a certain perspective.”

But Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan independent federal budget watchdog organization, has a different perspective.

“What I would say about these [bills], to sum up all of them in a word, is pathetic,” he said. “This is Congress’ job, and they’re trying to find a way to force them to do their job. It’s pretty clear, when you look back at shutdowns, nobody really wins. They’re costly and wasteful and you would think that just knowing that, Congress would avoid these in the future.”

An automatic CR is unlikely to be a game-changer, he said, noting that Congress has failed to pass a budget on time for more than 20 years, and CRs are already the rule rather than the exception. An automatic CR would just make it easier for Congress to further avoid its constitutionally mandated responsibility to appropriate funds for government operations.

“Shutdowns are wasteful and stupid, not to put too fine a point on it. But this is just an abdication of responsibility. Rather than just protect themselves from legislative stupidity, they should just simply do their job,” Ellis said.

He noted the destructive nature of CRs, which don’t account for necessary budgetary changes in programs from year to year, saying an automatic CR could worsen the situation.

“CRs are not victim-less either,” Ellis said. “For instance, as you get closer to the Census, the Census bureau gets more money. In 2021, they’re going to need less money than they did in 2019. So to just continue on would also just be wasteful.”

Both Sharp and Ellis said support for an automatic CR seems to have more momentum than in the past, as the country recovers from the longest government shutdown in history. But whether that momentum can be translated into legislation in this moment is up for grabs.

“I think there is a moment, particularly if there is another shutdown,” Ellis said, referring to the upcoming Feb. 15 deadline on the current CR. “But if they actually get a budget package through, if they fully fund government with regular appropriations, then some of that impetus gets lost, and maybe Congress and the executive will learn their lesson this time that shutdowns are wasteful and harmful and nobody wins. But that remains to be seen.”

Sharp went into a little more detail.

“I think these bills will run into the same kinds of problems that previous efforts did before,” he said. “There are definitely some legal questions involved in these kinds of bills.”

Possible pushback from lawmakers, statute

The first obstacle is constitutional; the law says there will be no money for the operation of government except what is appropriated by Congress, Sharp said. And Congress has historically been reluctant to forfeit that ability, as seen in the push for a biannual budget process in the 1980s.

Lawmakers sitting on the appropriations committees have always been particularly skeptical, as this would reduce their political power, he said.

However, four senators who currently sit on the Appropriations Committee — Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) — have cosponsored Portman’s bill. This could indicate that sentiments are changing.

But in the House, some appropriations lawmakers still stand opposed to such a change.

“While well intentioned, automatic continuing resolutions would weaken Congress’ power of the purse, shift power to the president, and make it much harder to fund investments important to working families,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in a statement provided to Federal News Network. “Discretionary spending should be subject to annual appropriations, not indefinite autopilot.”

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