Budget Shutdown or Ideological Warfare?


By Jamie Holladay | January 23, 2018 If you’re watching the new in recent days, it seems like Washington is burning down. Hashtags about the shutdown suggest that both parties are to blame for the government’s recent failure to, well, govern.

But in recent decades, shutdowns are the norm in DC. According to ThoughtCo and FoxNews, the United States has experienced eighteen shutdowns in the last forty-two years, while only experiencing two stoppages prior to 1976 that would be considered a modern day shutdown (1790 and 1933). The shortest of these occurred under the watch of President Reagan, with there being multiple one day stoppages. In contrast, the most recent shutdown (other than last week’s) was also the longest, with the 2013 shutdown lasting 21 days.

The large number of shut downs and the discrepancies in their length make it crucial to examine the different causes. Although shutdowns are supposed to be about the budget, only four of the eighteen shutdowns in the last forty-two years are actually related to the budget. In each case, congress presented a budget or resolution that was vetoed by the sitting President. The first was September 30, 1976 when President Ford vetoed the budget for out of control spending, and the government was shut down for ten days. A few years later, President Carter vetoed the budget for wasteful spending, a decision that resulted in an eighteen-day government closure. While President Reagan had seven shutdowns on his watch, only one which lasted two days, related to the budget. Finally, the only shutdown during President George H.W. Bush’s term occurred when he vetoed a continuing resolution (CR) that did not include a deficit reduction package.

The budget-driven, presidentially-decided shutdowns are the exceptions. In reality, most shutdowns in recent times have been ideological with the budget as an excuse to start them. InfoPlease explains that the other four shutdowns during President Carter’s tenure were over abortion. In contrast, President Reagan’s were a combination of defense initiatives and foreign aid. And of course, the shutdown in 2013 was over the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Last week’s shutdown, whether you believe it to be the #SchumerShutdown or the #TrumpShutdown, is no different. The same basic rules apply. Ideological difference in Congress – from both sides of the proverbial isle – and in the White House caused the shutdown. While partisan narratives are a convenient way to explain shutdowns, a single person (i.e. the President, the Minority Leader) or party isn’t entirely to blame. The problem here is a consistent willingness to use basic government functions as tools for ideological ends.

Recent history of shutdowns suggest that our politician don’t have to handle shutdowns in this regard. In November of 1983, President Reagan and his Democrat controlled congress compromised on several key elements: defense and foreign aid cuts, increase in education, MX missile funding, a ban on oil and gas leasing on federal wildlife land, and, abortion rears its ugly head again, and an agreement it made that federal employee insurance will not pay for abortions. These aren’t small issues for politicians to find middle ground and fix. The White House had a leader with a plan, and he knew how to accomplish it. The House of Representatives had a leader that knew his members, and his members knew their constituents. Together, they found the common ground to make a budget work, not a series of continuing resolutions.

So, in this shutdown, where does the fault lie? While the 537 persons that were elected and sent to Washington DC certainly bare some blame, the fault ultimately lies with the 230 million eligible voters in the United States.

The problem is that people do not vote incumbents out of office despite consistent complaints from both sides about the state of politics. At the start of the 115th Congress (this year’s), the average length of term for congressman is 9.4 years – that is basically five full terms. In contrast, until the beginning of the 20th century, the average term was 4 years. Similarly, the average length of a Senator, again at the start of the 115th Congress, is 10.1 years. The average senator, like the congressmen, also averaged 4 years until just before the turn of the 20th century.

According to Gallup for the period 4-11 December 2017, Congress’ approval rating was a whooping 17%. But the same members are continually elected to be representatives. Congress is dysfunctional. And yet, people keep electing the officials who make it that way. Next time people are at the ballot box, they might reflect on whether the official they might re-elect was willing to work across the aisle.

Jamie Holladay is a doctoral student living in Alabama. You can follow him on twitter @jamieholladay