A cure for future government shutdowns

The longest (partial) shutdown of the United States government in the history of the nation is over as of last night. Well… it’s “over” for three weeks anyway, when it will probably start all over again. We should at least have learned something from all of this drama, don’t you think? First, there were two classes of people in the country who experienced the shutdown in very different ways. First there were the somewhere short of one million federal employees who stopped getting paid for more than a month. The shutdown affected them in a very direct and immediate way. Some were furloughed while others in what are considered “critical” positions were forced to continue working without a paycheck. That’s just an obscenity. They will get all of their back pay shortly, but that doesn’t change the reality of being late on your bills and running out of available cash if you live paycheck to paycheck.

Then there were the rest of the roughly 327 million people in the country. Despite the flurry of media stories about what a disaster it all was, it sounds as if most of us simply got on with our lives. Sure, you might have had to cancel a trip to a national park, but there are other places to go on holiday. The lines may have been a bit longer at the airports, but since when is that anything new? Business took place, the mail was delivered, the electricity and home heating gas kept flowing. For the most part, it almost seems as if your average American can get along without the federal government without much trouble, at least in the short term. That’s something legislators should be considering.

But if for no other reason than protecting the federal workers who did not bring about this situation, would it be worth considering a way to end these shutdown theatrics? If so, I’ve got a suggestion which might do the trick and it wouldn’t be all that difficult to manage. Here goes.

Have Congress draft a new law regarding the federal budget. We can either tackle the entire thing as a single monstrosity or (preferably) break the budget down by department into a few dozen spending bills. When those spending levels for fiscal year 2019 are finalized (which they will be eventually) they would be locked in under this new law. Then, when the time came to negotiate the next annual spending bills, establish a deadline for passing the next budget for each department. If the new spending bills aren’t approved by that deadline, the old spending levels are automatically repeated for the following year. No new spending for you! If you managed to get your jobs done with that amount of money last year you’ll figure out a way to do it again this year.

In that fashion, there will be no new spending increases or new programs unless they are agreed upon by a sufficient number of members as well as the White House. It may not reduce the debt, but at least it will slow its increase every time Congress fails to act. And all of the currently employed federal workers can keep showing up for their jobs and receiving their generous, taxpayer-funded paychecks. If there are any layoffs they will probably be at the cable news networks since they’ll have much less to yammer about every year.

Of course, this is a complete fantasy. Neither Congress nor any president in recent memory has any interest in automating the process and eliminating these budget fights. That’s because too many of them are addicted to the drama of shutdown theater every bit as much as the cable news networks are. They would far rather talk about the issue than actually do anything about it.