The Last Shutdown?

The 35-day government grounding may have been enough to convince Congress to stop shutdowns for good.

Side-by-side photos of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Zach Gibson/Getty Images

How long must a government shutdown go on before Congress decides it can’t risk another one? We may soon find out if 35 days was long enough.

The longest government shutdown in history just concluded with the instigator, President Trump, suffering the same fate as instigators past: humiliating himself for all to see, enraging elements of his base by caving, and failing to secure even a dime of the policy for which he had been holding out. Shutdowns are lousy leverage. Ideally, this lesson would have been learned and re-learned enough by this point that no one would try to take the government hostage again. Trump, however, doesn’t learn lessons. But maybe, finally, Congress has: The needless pain to federal workers, contractors, those reliant on the federal government, and the economy over the last five weeks might finally be enough to prompt Congress to eliminate the practice from consideration.

In the last few days, three of four congressional leaders have come out in favor of a so-called “automatic continuing resolution”—legislation that would keep the government up and running if Congress doesn’t meet a funding deadline. While there are several different proposals floating around, all of the bills’ proponents want to move quickly while the shutdown’s misery is still fresh. They’re hoping to include the change in the final spending agreement that Congress has given itself until Feb. 15 to reach.

House Democrats don’t have any specific bill ready to go just yet. But the idea of an automatically continuing resolution does have the all-important nod of approval from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In a roundtable with reporters on Friday, Pelosi said that she would support legislation to keep the government funded at existing spending levels until a budget deal is reached. She referenced an old proposal by former Michigan Rep. Dale Kildee that could serve as a model, and appropriately enough, Rep. Dan Kildee—Dale’s nephew, who succeeded his uncle in 2013—and fellow Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin are working on bills.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, speaking on Meet the Press on Sunday, also said that he would support an automatic continuing resolution, and added that he would “go further” by offering an amendment to “not pay the members of Congress and Senate” if they can’t reach a budget deal.

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.”

The bill’s defenders counter that most Republicans wouldn’t want to live with automatic cuts to defense spending, so that would bring them to the table. They have a point—last year’s major budget deal happened when Republicans traded Democrats a significant boost to domestic spending in exchange for defense money. But most Democrats still won’t want to support anything that puts undesirable spending cuts in the offing—and would actually want the spending levels to increase with inflation. When I asked Portman’s spokesperson if the senator would be willing to concede on the cuts in order to reach a deal with Democrats, he said, “Sen. Portman is certainly willing to sit down, have the discussion, and try to come up with a resolution.”

Both Warner and Portman have said they’ll push hard to include an automatic CR into the final spending bill in the next few weeks. With the 35-day shutdown fresh in everyone’s minds, and support from leaders and other influential voices like Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, they have a decent shot. But first, they’ll need to reach a bipartisan, bicameral deal on which bill to include. It’s very easy—very easy—to see them reaching an impasse and dropping the issue. They could persuade themselves that after the horrors of this past shutdown, it would be a long time before anyone was stupid enough to try shutting down the government again. The rest of us might not be so easily convinced.