One Year After Obstructionists Shut Down the Government: Where Are We Now?

Tomorrow, Oct. 1, marks one year since obstructionists in the House shut down the federal government. Approximately 800,000 federal workers stretching across the country were told not to report to work, and many public services ground to a halt.

When the government shut down last fall, public servants processing requests ranging from Pell grants to Social Security checks were taken off the job. The National Institutes of Health stopped admitting new patients. National parks, including monuments and museums, closed their doors. Inspectors and other officials, including those who ensure the safety of the nation's mass transportation systems, were told to stay home. The 16-day fiasco cost the economy $24 billion.

This year, the story is different, but serious challenges remain. Congress passed a continuing resolution (CR) earlier this month before members returned home to hit the campaign trail. The measure keeps the government running until Dec. 11. Both parties seem to be optimistic that they’ll get a better deal out of the budgeting process if they wait to do the final work until after the November midterm elections.

Beyond additional budget work in December, Congress will likely face another debt limit fight in March. You might be asking yourself: didn’t we just raise the debt limit? Yes. Congress raised the limit this past February, but the agreement only bought a year of time. Another increase is necessary to ensure the United States doesn’t default on its debt. This could be the fourth year in a row of a manufactured crisis on the national debt. There used to be bipartisan agreement that calling the credit-worthiness of the national government into question was detrimental to the health of the nation. 

This pattern of budgeting by crisis has plagued the country in recent years despite the widely reported economic drawbacks of such an approach. Budget crises slow growth, erode investor confidence, and can cause fluctuations in a nervous market more focused on the near-term political winds than the long-term needs of business and the economy.

The policy consequences of consecutively enacting continuing resolutions are also substantial. Instead of having a thoughtful debate about adapting budget priorities to changing realities, members of the appropriations committees simply allow prior budget commitments to continue on auto-pilot.

Congress needs the flexibility to react to a fast-changing environment. A year ago, pundits would have been hard-pressed to predict we’d be launching attacks against an al-Qaeda spinoff group, ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Similarly, no one predicted the biggest Ebola outbreak in history, or the flood of immigrant children from South America. The spending needed to provide adequate health care for the growing number of our nation’s veterans has also been difficult to accurately estimate.

Working families are in a vulnerable position – long-term unemployment is still at record levels, the gap between the rich and the poor is the largest it’s been since records were kept, and wages for the vast majority of Americans have either stagnated or declined in recent years. The public needs a proactive government that works on the people's behalf – to put folks back to work, to provide vital products and services, and to make sure the American dream is alive and well for future generations.

America is fully capable of addressing these challenges, but it will require a shift in the way some policymakers are currently operating. Congress can no longer budget by crisis and continuing resolution, hacking away at funding for crucial programs and protections. Instead, congressional leaders need to establish a more thoughtful, measured approach and listen to the priorities of the American people.

For Further Reading:

House Even More Health and Safety Impacts of the Government Shutdown: Why You Should CareThe Fine Print blog, Oct. 15, 2013

Shutdown Impacts Beyond the BeltwayThe Fine Print blog, Oct. 2, 2013

Government Shutdown Creates Greater Insecurity in a Weak Economy, The Fine Print blog, Oct. 1, 2013

Government Shutdown: Top 50 Cities with Federal Workers and State by State NumbersThe Fine Print blog, Oct. 1, 2013

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Our government needs an enema! We need to start all over with a new congress and senate!
sad state of the government