Explained: How US Congress averted another federal government shutdown

US Congress
A sigh of relief as Congress pulls back from the brink, but can they sidestep US federal government shutdown in the long run?

The beginning of 2024 saw the US Congress facing yet another critical moment — the imminent threat of a federal government shutdown. This scenario, increasingly common in recent years, highlights the complexities and challenges of federal budgeting and political negotiation.

A government shutdown in the US occurs when Congress fails to pass, and the President fails to sign, appropriations bills funding federal government operations and agencies. The Anti deficiency Act prohibits federal agencies from operating without these appropriations.

The impact of a shutdown can be profound: non-essential federal employees are furloughed, essential services continue without immediate pay, and many government functions — from processing small business loans to maintaining national parks — grind to a halt.

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Current crisis averted

In January 2024, Congress was on the brink of such a shutdown. The deadlines for passing the 12 annual appropriations bills were fast approaching, with the first deadline on January 19 for four bills, and the second on February 2 for the remaining eight. These appropriations are vital for the functioning of various government departments, including defence, agriculture, energy, and veterans affairs.

In response to this looming deadline, Congressional leaders worked diligently to formulate a stopgap spending agreement. This agreement aimed to extend funding to March 1 for the first batch of agencies and to March 8 for the second group, thereby averting an immediate shutdown.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and House speaker Mike Johnson played key roles in these negotiations. They agreed to set a spending cap for fiscal year 2024 at $1.66 trillion, a figure that sparked controversy among House conservatives who favoured a lower spending threshold.

Within the $1.66 trillion figure, however, lay specific allocations and compromises that appeased both sides. Democrats secured increases for environmental and social programs, while Republicans gained ground on defence spending and certain tax deductions. This balancing act, while averting an immediate shutdown, still left some conservatives grumbling about the overall spending levels.

Challenges facing US Congress

Speaker Johnson faced significant opposition within his party, particularly from the House Freedom Caucus and other ultraconservatives, who were discontent with the spending levels and the overall approach to budget negotiations. This internal conflict mirrors past situations, such as the clash in October 2023, which led to the ousting of then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The decision to back a continuing resolution (CR), a temporary funding measure, was a reversal for Johnson, who had previously expressed reluctance to rely on such short-term solutions. This shift underscores the intricate balancing act Congressional leaders must perform — navigating party dynamics, policy priorities, and fiscal responsibilities.

A continuing resolution is a temporary funding measure that keeps the government operational when regular appropriations have not been passed. These resolutions, while preventing shutdowns, are not ideal. They often maintain funding at the previous year’s levels, which can be problematic for agencies requiring increased resources to meet evolving needs. Additionally, the uncertainty and piecemeal nature of CRs can disrupt government planning and operations.

The broader fiscal situation

This recent crisis and its aversion play out against a backdrop of broader fiscal challenges. The Fiscal Responsibility Act, passed in June 2023, set limits on annual appropriated spending, aiming to bring more discipline to the budgeting process. However, the House’s reluctance to align with these limits, and the inclusion of contentious policy provisions in their appropriations bills, has exacerbated tensions with the Senate and the White House.

These contentious provisions touched upon a range of issues, from restricting abortion funding to limiting environmental regulations to adjusting tax brackets for different income groups. The inclusion of these non-budgetary matters in appropriations bills further complicated negotiations, as it forced lawmakers to grapple with ideological differences alongside fiscal considerations.

Beyond the immediate disruptions, government shutdowns have significant economic implications. They undermine public confidence in government and can slow down economic growth. For example, the partial shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019 is estimated to have reduced the level of GDP growth and resulted in a permanent loss to the GDP.

As Congress navigates this latest fiscal challenge, the focus remains on finding long-term solutions that balance fiscal responsibility with the diverse needs and priorities of the American people. The use of CRs, while necessary to avoid immediate crises, highlights the need for a more sustainable approach to budgeting and appropriations.

The ongoing negotiations and political dynamics in Congress are more than just procedural formalities; they reflect the complex interplay of diverse political ideologies, economic priorities, and the imperative of ensuring the smooth functioning of government services.

Importance of bipartisan cooperation

The key to resolving these budget impasses often lies in bipartisan cooperation. While this is challenging in a politically polarised environment, it is essential for the effective functioning of government. The role of moderate lawmakers becomes crucial in such scenarios, as they often serve as the bridge between divided factions.

Government shutdowns or even the threat of them have a demoralising effect on federal employees. The uncertainty of funding disrupts not only their personal lives but also affects their ability to plan and execute long-term projects. Essential workers, while required to work through shutdowns, face the stress of delayed pay checks.

Public perception and confidence

Repeated shutdowns or threats erode public confidence in the government’s ability to manage its basic functions. This can lead to broader cynicism about public institutions and a decline in civic engagement.

The President plays a crucial role in these negotiations, not only as a signatory of the bills but also as a mediator and influencer in the legislative process. President Biden’s administration, for instance, has been actively involved in these discussions, balancing between the demands of Congressional Democrats and Republicans.

The need for a more comprehensive approach to fiscal policy is evident. This could involve reforms to the budgeting process, including measures to prevent the use of government shutdowns as a negotiating tool. There is also a growing call for longer-term budget resolutions to provide more stability and predictability to government operations and fiscal planning.

The averting of a government shutdown in early 2024 is a relief but also a reminder of the ongoing challenges in US fiscal policy and governance. As Congress and the White House continue to navigate these complexities, the hope is for more stable and sustainable solutions that ensure the effective functioning of government while addressing the diverse needs of the American people. The journey through this maze of budget negotiations and political manoeuvring continues to be a critical aspect of American democracy.

The spectre of shutdowns, even when averted, casts a long shadow on public perception. Repeated instances of gridlock chip away at trust in the government’s ability to function effectively. This can translate into decreased civic engagement and a sense of disillusionment among citizens. Moving forward, finding more stable and predictable solutions to budget impasses is crucial not only for fiscal responsibility but also for restoring public confidence in the democratic process.