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The Politics and Policy of a Government Shutdown

It can be hard to reverse it when Congress begins a trend (i.e., fighting over the debt limit, leveraging impeachment, etc.), and the threat of a government shutdown is quickly becoming an irreversible trend. The potential for a government shutdown has dramatically increased in frequency and is more often than not leveraged as a legitimate tool within the annual funding debate. The days of expecting a continuing resolution in September and an omnibus just before Christmas seems mythical these days. Despite the regularity of this never-ending conversation around a government shutdown, the politics of this move are really bad, especially in an election year.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) may have summed it up best when he recently said that “shutting down the government is harmful to the country, and it never produces positive outcomes — on policy or politics.” He is likely aware that Americans overwhelmingly want to avoid a shutdown (90% in recent polling), Americans do not like policymakers leveraging the threat of a shutdown (75% in recent polling), and policymakers will ultimately blame Congress if a shutdown happens (55% in recent polling). With congressional approval already hovering below 20%, a shutdown puts policymakers at political risk – unless they represent districts or states that are not competitive (which is the case with most leveraging a government shutdown).

But it is not only the political fallout that should turn policymakers away from a shutdown, but also the impact on advancing key policies. The fear of a potential government shutdown is increasingly taking over the policy agenda in Congress – a significant impact to the legislative progress even if the government stays open. For the last five months, Congress has largely been jumping from one shutdown cliff to another. Major legislation – like the tax reform bill, emergency supplemental legislation for Ukraine and Israel, border security, Farm Bill, etc. – have no chance of movement when policymakers are scrambling to avoid a shutdown. Floor time is wasted and the willingness to negotiate on other bills diminishes when a shutdown is looming.

The government has shut down ten times (3 times in the last 25 years). I am sure we have not seen the last shutdown, but hopefully policymakers have a better appreciation for the policy and politics that surround a shutdown...neither of which is helpful.


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