By Sarah Myers
Our government now has enough funding to remain open until Feb. 15. President Trump and Congress plan to use this time to continue arguing about funding for Trump’s wall. Frankly, I do not believe that they will reach an agreement by then. These are the same people who failed to reach a compromise, initiated the longest government shutdown in history and continue to fail to compromise throughout that shut down. Their track record is, to say the least, not encouraging.
While everyone in Washington is arguing about funding the wall, let’s take a moment to appreciate how avoidable and ridiculous government shutdowns are. Other countries do not pull this kind of political stunt. Surely the United States could avoid doing so if we put some effort into it.
In 1889, Emperor Meiji promulgated the first Japanese constitution. The Meiji Constitution stipulated that Japan’s new deliberative body, the Diet, had the power to approve or reject annual budgets. However, if the government reached the end of the year and the Diet had not yet approved a budget, the budget approved in the year before was automatically enacted. This failsafe was meant to preserve the power of the Emperor by allowing the Emperor to access funding even if the Diet refused to approve his budget. Ultimately this plan backfired, as state expenses increased quickly and the Emperor became less willing to accept older, and therefore smaller, budgets.
The United States could enact a similar mechanism. The most durable, and perhaps most legitimate, way to do so would be to ratify a constitutional amendment stipulating that all funding packages last for one fiscal year and that the previous year’s funding package is automatically enacted if Congress and the President fail to agree on a new package. But ratifying amendments is a long and arduous process, and Congress has grown accustomed to funding packages with flexible lengths.
Another option is to adopt new procedural rules in Congress. For instance, if a simple majority (as opposed to a two-thirds majority) passes a budget, and the President vetoes it, the Senate and House of Representatives could require that all members vote to override the President’s veto if failing to do so will shut down the government or if the government has already been shut down. This option has disadvantages; in some ways it subverts the constitutional process for vetoing and overriding vetoes, and congressional procedures are relatively easily changed.
There are other solutions. Congress could impose a time limit on budget negotiations (the UK Parliament is only expected to spend four days debating the national budget) and stipulate that the latest budget passing automatically come up for a vote after a certain number of days. Congress could pass laws reducing the salary of any congressperson who is in office when a government shutdown begins. Government employees could refuse to work without pay en masse. Government agencies could direct their employees not to work when the government has been shut down. Frankly, anyone in a management position in government should probably recognize that their employees are being taken advantage of and stand up to Congress on their behalf.
There are options besides allowing people to take the entire federal government hostage in pursuit of their own goals. Yet the United States has not seriously considered structural changes to our legislative process or to bureaucratic policies, even after a shutdown which lasted more than a month. Instead we’ve talked about whose fault this is and whether the Democrats should cave on funding for the wall simply to get the government open again (they should not–rewarding behavior ensures that it will happen again). So perhaps it’s time to stop letting politicians lead the conversation. Instead, we need to focus on long-term solutions.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.