The World

The Shutdown Is a Textbook Example of American Exceptionalism

A closure sign is posted on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 3, 2013.

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

I had some fun on Monday speculating about how the U.S. media would cover the government shutdown if it were happening in another country. However, it should be pointed out that this particular scenario—a democratically-elected government ceasing operations because legislators and the president can’t agree on a budget—doesn’t happen in other countries, or at least hasn’t. As the Monkey Cage’s Erik Voeten wrote on Monday, “I cannot think of a single foreign analogy to what is happening in the U.S.  today.”

Mostly, this is because, as my colleague Matthew Yglesias’ great post on the work of the late Juan Linz pointed out, the vast majority of the world’s successful democracies have parliamentary systems.* In these governments, if lawmakers can’t agree on a budget, the parliament is dissolved, new elections are held, and whole process starts over. (In Australia in 1975, the Queen of England got to fire everybody!) In the United States, we’re stuck with the current group until midterm elections.

Of course, it’s not as if dysfunction isn’t possible in parliamentary systems. Linguistically divided Belgium went 589 days without a government in 2010 and 2011, taking the world record from post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. But during that time, government-provided services kept operating and a caretaker government managed to pass a budget, steward the country through its presidency of the EU, and even bomb Libya.

Canada’s parliament has been periodically suspended –a process known as “prorogation”—in recent years, but while controversial, this isn’t a suspension of government on the level of what the United States is currently experiencing.   

What about other countries with strong presidential systems? To be blunt, there are relatively few of them that haven’t experienced a coup d’état, dictatorship, or serious civil unrest in the last 30 years or so. But in the more stable ones, this doesn’t seem to have ever been a problem.

As Slate.Fr points out, France, which has a hybrid semi-presidential system, also has language in its constitution stipulating that “Should the Finance Bill setting out revenue and expenditure for a financial year not be tabled in time for promulgation before the beginning of that year, the Government shall as a matter of urgency ask Parliament for authorization to collect taxes and shall make available by decree the funds needed to meet commitments already voted for.” The president also has the power to dissolve the National Assembly.

Brazil’s Congress failed to pass a budget at the beginning of 2006, but as a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from that time noted, this meant merely that the government would be “limited to paying salaries and current expenses (utilities, rent, etc.) until Congress approves a budget.”  The lack of discretionary spending obviously wasn’t ideal for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the time, but a lot of U.S. federal workers would probably take the deal.

It shouldn’t really be surprising that other democracies simply keep operating during funding gaps since that’s exactly what the U.S. government did until the 1980s. According to the Congressional Research Service, “for years leading up to 1980, many federal agencies continued to operate during a funding gap, “minimizing all nonessential operations and obligations, believing that Congress did not intend that agencies close down.”

It was Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti who issued an opinion in 1980, in response to increasingly frequent funding gaps, stating that U.S. law required that the head of an agency could “avoid violating the Antideficiency Act only by suspending the agency’s operations until the enactment of an appropriation.” The set the stage for the government shutdowns that occurred under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now Barack Obama.

So yes, my piece describing America like a failed state involved a bit of hyperbole, but it certainly makes sense that people in other countries find this all very strange.

*Correction, Oct. 3, 2013: This post originally misspelled Juan Linz’s last name.