Once again, the threat of a government shutdown looms over Congress. If lawmakers fail to pass appropriations packages by November 17, D.C. dysfunction will cause many federal agencies and facilities to close down and federal workers will be furloughed or forced to work without pay.
The government doesn't have to operate this way. Senator James Lankford (R-OK) has introduced the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act to provide for continued operation of the federal government when elected officials fail to enact spending bills in a timely manner. The reform will be offered as an amendment to a "minibus" appropriations bill this week, giving the Senate an opportunity to advance a significant reform to prevent brinkmanship budgeting.
The Background on Shutdowns
Under the Antideficiency Act (ADA), it is illegal for the executive branch to spend funds that have not been authorized by an act of Congress or in amounts excess of appropriation levels set in law. This is intended to safeguard Congress's power of the purse by preventing bureaucrats from obligating taxpayer funds. But a side effect of the ADA is that political disagreements in D.C. can shut down parts of the government, imposing needless hardship and burdens on federal employees and taxpayers.
If Congress and the president fail to enact spending bills by October 1, the start of the federal fiscal year, the ADA requires many federal agencies to shutter their operations. Federal facilities, parks, and museums are closed and some federal workers are furloughed without pay, while those deemed "essential" are required to keep working without pay. Although Congress provides retroactive pay after the funding lapse is resolved, it leads to financial stress for many federal workers and frustration for taxpayers who can't access services. It also wastes taxpayers' dollars as agencies go through the process of winding down operations, then rebooting after funding is restored, and ultimately, taxpayers get stuck paying federal workers even though many of them did not work.
Keeping the Government Open
There have been government shutdowns in FYs 1996, 2014, 2018, and 2019. The longest funding gap occurred in 2019, leaving most governmental offices shut for 35 days. With the goal of ensuring that this doesn't happen again, Sen. Lankford introduced S. 135, the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act (PGSA) of 2023. The Act would allow for basic governmental services to continue when politicians fail to enact appropriations in time.
In the event of any future funding lapse, the PGSA would provide for automatic rolling continuing resolutions of 14-day periods with funding based on the most recently enacted levels. During the lapse, appropriations bills are prioritized for consideration, and federal funds would be prohibited for use for travel by members of Congress and certain executive branch officials except to Washington, D.C. Mandatory quorum calls would be held each day to ensure that lawmakers are present in Congress.
The bill also corrects a budget scorekeeping problem that cropped up in the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) estimate of the proposal in 2019. Even though the intent of the bill is to provide for continuing funding at previously-enacted levels, CBO’s estimate made it look as though the bill would increase spending by nearly $13 trillion over the decade. This was the result of the rules CBO is required to use in its analyses.
The bill was introduced along with ten original cosponsors from across the aisle including Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Angus King (I-ME), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Steve Daines (R-MT), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Mike Braun (R-IN), and John Barrasso (R-WY). Since then, another eight members have signed on in support of the bill.
The bill will be offered as Amendment #1232 to the "minibus" package in the Senate with funding for Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and military construction. To advance, the amendment will need a supermajority of 60 supporters.
Taxpayers deserve a government that works. The dysfunctional budget process should not impose undue burdens on citizens. The Prevent Government Shutdowns Act would enable the government to continue to work even when Congress fails to do its job in a timely manner.