The Odds of a Shutdown Spike
A budget expert puts the likelihood at 75 percent.
By Stan Collender
I’ve been predicting since July that the irreconcilable differences between Democrats and Republicans on several key issues — only some of which have anything to do with the budget — are much more likely than not to lead to the federal government shutting down when the next fiscal year begins at midnight, Sept. 30. My most recent projection is that there is now a 75 percent chance of a shutdown.
As an almost 40-year veteran of the federal budget wars and one of the few people who has served on the staffs of both the House and Senate budget committees, I’ve reached this lofty number by reading the budget tea leaves that others seem almost desperate to discount, disregard or ignore.
First and foremost, there is not enough time to reach a deal. Not only have none of the fiscal 2016 appropriations yet been signed into law, none have even passed both the House and Senate. With less than two calendar weeks (and far fewer days of potential legislative work) to go, the only way to keep the government from shutting down will be for Congress and the president to agree on a continuing resolution to fund the government for a short time while a larger deal is negotiated.
Such a short-term CR will be very difficult for any number of reasons, but the controversy over Planned Parenthood is perhaps the biggest one. The dispute over continued funding for the organization has added a hyperemotional element to what already is a hyperpartisan and dysfunctional budget process. Some Republicans have vowed never to vote for any legislation — including a CR — that maintains this funding, while the White House has promised to veto any bill that ends it. With Congress not likely to have the votes to override a veto, this issue alone could easily bring government operations to a halt on Oct. 1.
In addition, the dispute between the parties over military and domestic funding has so far been impossible to negotiate. Democrats want both military and domestic spending increased while Republicans have proposed an increase for the military but a reduction in domestic programs.
To demonstrate that they would not agree to a budget deal without increases for both, earlier this year, Democrats prevented the defense appropriation from being debated on the Senate floor until they could be certain that the military increases that Republicans wanted would be matched by similar increases for domestic agencies. When the GOP refused, this year’s whole appropriations process came to an immediate halt. So far, nothing has changed.
As if that wasn’t enough, the inability of congressional Republicans in recent days to stop the Obama-negotiated Iran deal from going into effect has increased their already high frustration with the White House. Some GOP representatives and senators are now considering using the CR to stop the agreement by including language preventing the State Department from spending money to implement the deal. That, too, likely would result in a presidential veto that would not be overridden.
These already difficult issues are being made much worse by the often-extreme differences between House and Senate Republicans and the inability of the GOP leaders in both houses to control their members.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has a four-seat majority, but the four GOP senators running for president may not be able to vote for any legislation, even a short-term CR, that would continue Planned Parenthood funding because doing so could damage their candidacies. If Senate Democrats stay united and the four candidates bolt, McConnell won’t have enough votes to do much of anything on a CR.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is under significant pressure from about 40 of his most conservative members who are threatening to unseat him if he moves ahead with a CR that includes funding for Planned Parenthood. They have attempted this type of political extortion before, and their efforts have always failed — but it still will be hard for the speaker to ignore what this sizable percentage of his caucus is demanding.
That puts Senate and House Republicans directly at odds. McConnell likely can’t get the Senate to adopt a CR that stops funding for Planned Parenthood while Boehner can’t get the House to adopt one that allows it to continue.
That means the speaker and majority leader might have to do what Boehner has done in past budget fights: work with Democrats to get the votes needed to move ahead. But House and Senate Democrats already have indicated that their votes won’t come cheap. Their demands could include all of the budget items Republicans don’t want, such as more funding for domestic as well as military programs, continued funding for Planned Parenthood and funding for the implementation of the agreement with Iran. They might also want something more, such as an agreement to begin the budget negotiations the White House has been requesting.
This total capitulation to Democratic demands will be very hard for House and Senate Republicans to stomach. It could cost Boehner his job as speaker and threaten McConnell’s authority as majority leader. It also is not at all clear that House Republicans or the four GOP senators running for president view a government shutdown as an event to be feared politically or that they are worried about being blamed should one occur. For some — including many of the same representatives who are threatening Boehner’s tenure as speaker — a shutdown would be the legislative equivalent of a reelection campaign event that energizes the Republican base and convinces constituents someone is fighting for them in Washington.
These House members point with glee to the results in the first election following the last shutdown in 2013. Not only did the GOP win nine seats and wrest control of the Senate, it won 16 more seats and increased its majority in the House. Why should anyone think, they ask, that the situation will be any different this time around?
A shutdown is anything but certain, of course. But it’s hard to see how the situation could change dramatically in the very short time left before the start of the fiscal year. It’s far more likely the odds will get worse rather than better.