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Congress looks poised to avoid a government shutdown with another stopgap bill that extends federal discretionary funding through mid March. Averting the unnecessary, self-inflicted damage of a government shutdown would be welcome news, but it shouldn’t even be a question.
The seemingly constant governing from one shutdown cliff to the next is no way to run a country, even if this has essentially become standard operating procedure in Washington. Congress passed a similar funding stopgap, known as a continuing resolution, in early December to avoid a shutdown as a previous continuing resolution was set to expire. That came on the heels of another short-term funding fix passed in late September. And so the cycle of fiscal procrastination continues.
It’s almost like Bill Murray reliving the same day over and over again in the movie “Groundhog Day.” But this is no comedy.
“I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life,” Murray’s character, a weatherman, says at one point in the 1993 classic. That’s pretty close to how we feel about Congress continuing to just barely avoid one government shutdown after another.
Movie references aside, the continued reliance on short-term funding bills has real life consequences. And it has for quite some time.
“Continuing resolutions put our government on autopilot, funding outdated programs at rates that may not be appropriate and locking in the previous year’s priorities,” Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said back in 2016. “These measures also create uncertainty, delay the start of vital programs and end up costing the government more money.
So-called “regular order” is little but a memory. This process, at least in theory, outlines the general timeline for the president to submit a budget proposal to lawmakers, Congress to develop its own budget resolution and then pass individual appropriations bills. Those yearly appropriations bills, however, are often replaced by continuing resolutions. This flawed approach usually results in extending existing funding at the same levels rather than making adjustments based on current needs. And it fuels unnecessary shutdown brinkmanship.
If you feel like we’ve said all this before, it’s because we have. And congressional leaders have themselves been calling for a return to more regular order, without ever actually doing it. It is past time to flip this “Groundhog Day” script.
One potential off-ramp to at least ease this budgetary dysfunction is the idea of preventing government shutdowns all together. Maine’s other senator, independent Sen. Angus King, has for several years been involved in a bipartisan push for legislation that would set up an automatic continuing resolution when government funding runs out. Now, that wouldn’t automatically result in all individual appropriations bills suddenly being passed on time, but it could alleviate the shutdown drama and help lawmakers get back to a more deliberate budgetary process.
“The American people sent us here to do a job – and when we allow partisan brinksmanship to shut down the government, we aren’t doing that job,” King said in a statement last September. “Government shutdowns have significant impacts on people and communities across the country, affecting key federal departments and the contractors they work with, slowing our economy, and putting working families in limbo. It’s clear that something needs to change, and I’m proud to back a bipartisan bill that would keep the government open, and keep Congress in session until we reach an agreement.”
Congress needs to stop jumping from one shutdown deadline to another. It’s a process that makes about as much sense as relying on a rodent to predict the weather every February. Sure, it almost seems normal at this point. But that doesn’t mean it works.