British philosopher Bertrand Russell once described the “game of chicken” as “a sport … practiced by some youthful degenerates.” While I wouldn’t describe members of Congress as either, they appear headed for yet another game of chicken.
The highly polarized and partisan Congress has played this game repeatedly, with the shutdown of the government hanging in the balance. The 2012 “fiscal cliff” showdown, the debt ceiling crisis in 2011, and the shutdown in 2013 are recent examples.
The normal process requires Congress to pass 12 separate appropriations bills by the start of the new fiscal year, on October 1. In recent years, the Congress, no matter which party is in control, has proven a dismal failure at meeting this basic responsibility. All of the necessary bills have become law only four times since 1977.
If agencies are left unfunded as the clock runs out, the government is forced to shut down those agencies. We have seen this damaging outcome in 1995-1996 for 26 days in the showdown between then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton and in 2013 in the battle between Republicans and President Obama. That most recent shutdown lasted 16 days.
Most years the failure to complete the regular process has led to the passage of continuing resolutions. These are temporary measures designed to give Congress additional time to try to fund the government. In some years, appropriations have been packaged in huge omnibus bills covering many or all of the federal agencies. Neither are good ways to legislate. They diminish the role of individual members of Congress in making careful decisions about and casting accountable votes on budget priorities.
With recess scheduled for all of August, the number of days before the deadline is dwindling. Even if, for the first time in six years, committees in both houses were to report all 12 appropriations bills, Senate Democrats are expected to block them in an effort to bring Republicans to the table to negotiate a new budget with higher spending limits for domestic programs.
Democrats, having rediscovered the value of the filibuster, have promised to use it to blockade all FY 2016 appropriations until Republicans renegotiate spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (which itself ended a shutdown crisis). It is enforced through a process called “sequestration,” calling for indiscriminate across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending equally divided between defense and domestic. These automatic cuts were designed as a “sword of Damocles” on the assumption that the defense cuts would be too steep for most Republicans and the domestic cuts too severe for Democrats to stomach. The thinking was that this draconian process would force Congress to negotiate a more rational way of reaching budget targets. It failed.
Now, the Republican majority is reporting out bills that increase funding for defense above the sequestration levels, but hold the line on domestic programs. Democrats want a more equitable distribution for their domestic priorities.
This is causing what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called the “filibuster summer.” Last month the Democratic minority proved its commitment and effectiveness by unifying to prevent the Defense Appropriations bill from even coming to the floor. The vote was 50-45 with all of the Democrats voting against breaking the filibuster. Sixty votes are necessary.
As time runs out, the game of chicken comes into play. Neither party wants to shut the government down, but like the real-life version of chicken, where neither driver wishes for a head-on collision, both may assume that the other will capitulate and swerve. This leads to disastrous consequences for the drivers or, in this case, for the nation.
Both parties have already begun blaming each other for a potential shutdown. It only makes sense to negotiate. Another word for negotiation and compromise is “legislating.” Republicans would yield nothing by coming to the table. They ought to do it.