This week I thought I would talk to you about shutdowns. On Saturday, Sept. 30, the federal government came within hours of a shutdown, so it is a relevant topic. We have all lived through government shutdowns in the past so this is not exactly a new phenomenon, but that does not mean that it is not a big deal. So today I thought we would examine why we got to this point on Saturday and why it may come back to the brink in November.
The main power of Congress is that it controls the federal government’s financing. It sets the U.S. tax code and determines the budget. Typically, budget impasses result from a conflict between the Congress and the president. This is because the budget is required to be signed into law by the President of the United States. So you occasionally get things like the famous shutdown in the 1990s where the Republican-controlled Congress and the Democratic president are unable to reach a compromise solution. The government shuts down because it is no longer funded.
This near-shutdown was interesting because President Biden is only tangentially involved. The cause of all this is the makeup of the House of Representatives. Remember that the result of the 2022 Midterm Elections was a nine-vote majority for the Republican Party. If we assume united Democratic Party opposition, the House Republicans can have, at most, four defections to pass bills (four Republican defections means a 217-216 passage). In this case the shutdown was averted through a narrow compromise where the government has been temporarily funded until mid-November. That is good news, but there is every chance we end up on the brink of a shutdown again.
If you remember the constant failure to elect a Speaker of the House earlier this year, the problem is remarkably similar. The small margin of the Republican majority is such that a tiny number of hardline conservatives are able to bring the House to a screeching halt. They object to: the amount of government spending, aid for Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, and increased spending on the U.S.-Mexico border. Such a bill would stand absolutely zero chance of becoming law. United House Republican support would be challenging because a significant portion — some polls indicate a majority — of Republicans actually favor aid to Ukraine. There is also the fact that anything that would win the approval of House members like Boebert and Gaetz is almost certainly dead on arrival when it hits the Democratically controlled Senate and President Biden’s desk.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy could probably get some kind of “grand bargain” passed beyond a stopgap measure but it would require him to reach out to moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives. The issue for the Speaker is that he has been threatened with a challenge to his leadership if he goes that route. No one knows how weak his position is more than Speaker McCarthy. He had to sit there in January and endure the national embarrassment of his own party voting him down over and over again.
Why was a shutdown avoided? The shutdown was avoided because it is in no one’s interest that a shutdown occurred. When shutdowns occur, the public opinion toward everyone goes down. A poll conducted a few weeks ago by Monmouth University found that 64% of Americans wanted Congress to reach a compromise on the budget. A plurality of respondents primarily blamed Republicans in Congress for the problem. As an observer, those numbers would terrify me because they were gathered weeks ago when the shutdown was hypothetical. Those numbers would have gotten worse had the government actually shutdown.
Keeping the government open is a basic function of Congress and if it cannot achieve that then what are they even doing? The public can deal with changes to public policy in Congress because we don’t expect them. But the budget is a staple to most people. To use an analogy: I can deal with the milkshake machine being broken when I go to McDonald’s, but if they run out of french fries that is an absolute travesty.
Speaker McCarthy has a very fine needle to thread moving forward. He has to find some way to pacify his most ideological members while also getting something through that will be signed into law by President Biden. He may be feeling the heat from within his caucus right now but he is about to feel heat from the general public. In 1995 the government shut down twice, and while the public was angry at both parties they primarily blamed the Congressional Republicans over President Clinton (47 to 27 according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken at the time). That shutdown was a big factor in helping President Clinton get re-elected in 1996. If you are Speaker McCarthy that is the doomsday scenario. Can he avoid that? Only time will tell but I’ll bet that we are approaching a crisis again in November.
David Searcy holds a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Southern Illinois University.