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Countdown to Ending Government Shutdowns

By: By Senators James Lankford (R-OK) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH)

It’s a sad but true reality: Congress functions best on a deadline. In theory, when Congress established the annual budget and appropriations process in 1974 it gave itself a number of deadlines to set a budget and fund the government. The problem is Congress has only met those deadlines four times since 1974.

You’ve probably seen the “Countdown to Shut Down” clocks on the major news networks as the nation waits impatiently for Congress to fund the government, usually in late September or right before Christmas. More than 20 times since the ’70s, those clocks hit 00:00 and the government shut down. Other times, just the threat of a shutdown, the desire to be home for Christmas or Thanksgiving, obligations in home states and districts, or international travel commitments have yielded swift agreements, allowing lawmakers to leave DC.

Federal government shutdowns are Washington dysfunction on full display. The 1974 Budget Act, created just after Watergate, involves a three-step budget process and then mandates the passage of 12 appropriations bills to fund budget priorities. To avoid entirely shutting down, since 1977, Congress has resorted to funding the government through 178 continuing resolutions (known as CRs), which maintain current funding levels but fail to take into account new or changed federal priorities. 

Although essential services like national security and transportation do not stop during a shutdown, there is tremendous cost financially and personally when the government shuts down since every unfunded federal agency must cease new operations, furlough some or all workers, pause contracts, stop federal grants, and numerous other avoidable and costly consequences.

Federal employees aren’t just folks who live and work in Washington, DC. In our home states of Oklahoma and New Hampshire, we have 39,627 and 4,315 federal employees respectively. While the federal government has always provided back pay for federal employees after a shutdown, it’s excruciating to not know whether or not you can pay your rent because Congress failed to do its job.

Because the current budget process has very little in the way of enforcement to get the job done on time, Congress misses the funding deadline nearly every year. Sadly, shutdowns and CRs have become our new normal, and Congress currently has no real incentive to budget and appropriate through the correct process. Some members find it more politically advantageous for one side to accuse the other of being responsible for the shutdown instead of actually sitting down and solving it. We need a solution that prevents the harm to federal families when the government shuts down, punishes Congress for failing to do its job, and ensures we can still work out federal funding priorities in a meaningful way. We also need an option that can get 60 votes in the Senate, pass the House, and be signed by the president—not bolster televised theatrics.

Our Prevent Government Shutdowns Act would help reduce this annual appropriations drama and protect the American people by ending government shutdowns.

Our proposal is simple and bipartisan, two things we agree Washington could use more of right now. If the House, Senate, and White House fail to come to an agreement on full appropriations by the end of a fiscal year, our bill would provide an automatic CR that protects federal employees from harm while discontinuing all official congressional and White House travel until the government is fully funded. That keeps the negotiators at the table until the constitutionally required job is done. Simply put, no one can leave until the work is finished.

Specifically, our bill would restrict all taxpayer-funded travel allowances for House members, Senators, and staff from the White House Office of Management and Budget except for one trip back to the capital region so that they can get back to work. The president, vice president, and Cabinet officials will be exempt from the travel restrictions given concerns that such restrictions could cause national security issues. The bill would also ensure the House and Senate prioritize votes on appropriations bills over any other matters until the situation is resolved. Additionally, our bill requires a recorded quorum call vote each day at noon in the House and Senate to confirm attendance, which keeps members in town for mandatory votes.

Our proposal is a way to protect federal workers and the American people from wasteful shutdowns but still provide Congress a way to negotiate until the budget can be resolved. We will have differences of opinion on our federal budget; that is normal. We just believe it should not be normal to hurt families across our nation in a shutdown that could be avoided.

Lankford is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management. Hassan is ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management.