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The federal budget process, too often defined by procrastination and shutdown politics, has long been in need of systemic reform — or at least recalibration. Rather than relying on massive last minute spending packages, lawmakers should return to a more regular (and long dormant) process of passing individual spending bills.
Sen. Susan Collins, now the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, listed this return to passing the 12 individual spending bills a priority in a recent Bangor Daily News column. She and committee chair Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, released a notable joint statement committing to the same.
This commitment is important, and this broad change to the appropriations process is much needed.
Until it happens, and frankly regardless of whether it happens this Congress and is sustained in future ones, lawmakers can also take a separate step proposed by a group including Maine’s other senator. Independent Sen. Angus King has once again joined an ideologically diverse cohort of senators looking to end government shutdowns entirely.
“The American people sent their members of Congress to Washington to work for them – and when we allow partisan bickering to shut down the government, we aren’t doing that job. When Washington’s dysfunction repeatedly hurts hardworking Maine people, it’s clear that something needs to change,” King said in a recent statement announcing the reintroduction of the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act. He is an original cosponsor of the legislation, as he was previously in 2021.
This 2023 version, reintroduced by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, would prevent government shutdowns from happening by employing automatic short-term funding bills, known as continuation resolutions, to prevent the lapse of government funding. Importantly, it would also effectively require members of Congress to stay in Washington, D.C. until they fulfill the basic responsibility of funding the government.
Governing by continuing resolution, as lawmakers often do when they fail to meet deadlines they have set for themselves, is generally not the best way of doing things. But it is better than the alternative of a shutdown. By turning to automatic 14-day continuing resolutions that would fund operations at current levels, and by preventing members of Congress or their staff from using public funds for travel out of Washington during that period, the bill would basically take government shutdowns out of the equation and keep pressure on lawmakers to actually do their jobs.
“We’ve seen the ripple effects of shutdowns too many times: families left struggling, local small businesses seeing stark declines in their traffic, and Americans scrambling to receive the federal services they rely on,” King said in his statement. “The Prevent Government Shutdowns Act of 2023 is a bipartisan effort to prevent these self-inflicted crises and make government shutdowns a thing of the past. I hope my colleagues can join me and help pass this commonsense bill.”
The concept of rebalancing the federal funding process enjoys support from across the political and ideological spectrum. There’s something for everyone to hate in the current process, which often fails to account for long-term needs, lacks consistency and predictability, provides little time for review, and opens the door for wasteful spending. That helps explain why the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act continues to enjoy bipartisan support. It’s time for that to become bipartisan action.
Ultimately, Congress can prevent government shutdowns by passing individual appropriations bills on time. Top appropriators like Sen. Collins have sent encouraging signals about that. But that will take sustained effort. In the meantime, lawmakers could also get on board with the proposal from King and others to end shutdowns entirely. This would not be a replacement for regular order, but by removing shutdown threats, it could make it easier for needed collaboration and deliberation to win out over partisan drama.