January 29, 2019: Automatic Continuing Resolutions, Revisited

Earlier on these pages, I applauded Senator Mark Warner’s Stop STUPIDITY Act, which would cause Government appropriations to go into automatic pilot in the event that Congress and the President are unable to agree on how to fund the Government. The Washington Post and Slate Magazine have both weighed into Warner’s proposal, as well as a competing proposal from Senator Rob Portman (R-OH). I’m printing today’s editorial. I’ve highlighted the downside. Comments are welcome.

THE CONGRESSIONAL BUDGET OFFICE reported Monday that the five-week government shutdown cost the country $3 billion that it will never get back, with substantial pain for individuals who went unpaid and businesses that lost customers. With another closure looming, two senators are pushing bills they say would end shutdowns once and for all. Both proposals have risks.

Don’t get us wrong: We’re against shutdowns. Lost billions are just one measure of the latest. Five million pieces of mail went unopened at the Internal Revenue Service during the five-week hiatus, and the National Taxpayer Advocate said it will take the agency a year to dig out, even as it implements a big new tax law. Federal recruiting surely will take a hit. The shutdown showed how much Americans rely on competent government services, but it will hobble the government’s ability to attract the talented workers it needs to provide them.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have introduced competing bills that would automatically continue previous spending if Congress failed to pass new spending bills. The budget would essentially run on autopilot.

The problem is that giving lawmakers a fallback option limits “the incentive for one party or the other to go to the table to negotiate a new spending bill,” the Brookings Institution’s Sarah Binder wrote us in an email. “That limits Congress’s ability to respond to changing agendas or emergencies that might require shifts in spending priorities.” Government agencies cannot plan long-term, pursue new projects or end failing ones when their funding levels are tied tightly to previous appropriations.

The bills recognize this downside and offer alternative solutions. Mr. Portman would begin across-the-board spending cuts, hitting defense and non-defense spending, after 120 days, as an incentive to negotiate. That might work, but there is a danger that anti-spending insurgents would welcome the opportunity to force down federal spending. Mr. Warner’s, by contrast, would withhold funding from Congress and the White House until lawmakers agreed on new appropriations bills. Of course, a future Congress could cancel both these forcing mechanisms while keeping spending on autopilot.

Lawmakers may judge that the disruption caused by shutdowns, and the difficulty of compromising on a budget, justify adopting a new mechanism, no matter how risky. But it might be better to start by adopting another of Mr. Warner’s ideas: to withhold congressional and White House operations money if Congress fails to pass new funding bills. The government might still shut down — but lawmakers and their staffs would share the pain. That might help them see the wisdom of reopening the government a lot more quickly.

Slate Magazine has an article supporting the automatic continuing resolution. Below is a snippet from the article.

Sure enough, there’s already legislation from Senate Democrats to do just that. Earlier this month, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner introduced the Stop STUPIDITY Act. Though the acronym—“Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In the coming Years Act”—is a cheat (Where’s the “T”? Who hid the “c”?), the idea itself could work. It would automatically fund the government at existing levels if a deal isn’t reached—except for the legislative branch and the executive office of the president.

As I wrote earlier this month, the trick in writing an effective automatic CR is ensuring that it doesn’t give Congress an incentive to stay stuck in continuing-resolution limbo forever, and taking pay away until budget agreements are reached could be such an incentive. That doesn’t mean the bill is perfect. It’s a little much to threaten the incomes of low-paid staffers instead of the members, senators, and president exclusively. And even then, the policy would spare independently wealthy politicians from the pain it’s designed to inflict. But it’s a viable starting point, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered his support for it over the weekend.

Many Senate Republicans, though, have their own preferred bill. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman recently introduced the End Government Shutdowns Act, a bill he has put forward to every Congress since his 2010 election, which would create an automatic CR that cuts spending by modest increments the longer it takes Congress to pass proper spending bills. The knock Democrats have on this bill is that conservatives might be happy to live with the automatic CR forever, since “forever” would mean “bigger and bigger cuts.”

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