Compared to a Republican representative allegedly receiving “a clean shot to the kidneys” from another representative this week, the House passing a plan to avert a government shutdown and keep federal funding flowing into early 2024 seemed almost anti-climactic.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of how annual efforts to pass spending bills have changed. They are now one of the highest-stakes elements of the congressional workload. The showdowns and shutdowns, threatened and realized, don’t occur in a vacuum but are a symptom of the broader challenges — some would say dysfunction — that have often plagued Congress.
The budget process has become less about major fights over taxing and spending and more about the ways in which this fundamental congressional responsibility can be undermined by narrow partisan conflicts and performative politicking. The kind of brinkmanship we saw this week, and even more so in September, is becoming the new normal for the budget process. Unfortunately we may be in for another round in early 2024.
Standard legislating, when it happens, is often bipartisan. But Congress routinely struggles to write new laws, leaving major issues unaddressed.
This puts more and more stress around the handful of bills that are seen as so important that they must pass, and the annual spending bills fall into this category. That is why they have become targets for members who are eager to get something done (including narrow partisan objectives and even when it reveals divisions with some of their party colleagues) and for members who are eager to draw attention to themselves (like Matt Gaetz and some of his fellow hard-liners).
The desire to use spending bills to advance partisan goals can ultimately make them more difficult to pass. Among Mike Johnson’s first pledges after his election as speaker was an ambitious schedule for floor consideration of individual spending bills in the House. But those ambitions quickly hit the cold reality of the current G.O.P. conference: A vote on one was canceled in part because some Republican members from districts won by President Biden announced they would oppose it over abortion-related language.
We can see how the process has devolved in the evolution of shutdowns, both threatened and realized, over recent decades. Consider the partial shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996, both resulting from broad disagreement between President Bill Clinton and the new House Republican majority on big-picture fiscal questions about taxes and the deficit.
The next shutdown, in 2013, however, was not fought over those kinds of high-level issues; it involved a faction of congressional Republicans seeking to use the appropriations process to limit parts of President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. In 2018, we had two shutdowns — the second affected some federal agencies for a record 34 days, over President Donald Trump’s desire to secure additional funding for a wall along the nation’s southwestern border.
But this year’s versions have been different. They have not been about specific policy asks. Or as the former House speaker Newt Gingrich — an architect of the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns — put it in September: “There are times people vote yes one day, and then they come back and vote no the next day, and can’t explain why they switched.”
It used to be that the annual budget process was the only place for the majority and the minority to fight across party lines. But now, spending measures are the only place for House Republicans to have fights within their conference, and those can end up being as much about style as about substance.
Consider the House’s bill, passed on Nov. 2, providing $14.3 billion in military assistance to Israel. It also contained cuts to funding for enforcement at the I.R.S., which Republican leaders included to “ensure responsible spending and reduce the size of the federal government” while providing aid to a U.S. ally. But because reducing I.R.S. enforcement leads to less revenue, the measure would, according to projections from the Congressional Budget Office, actually increase the federal deficit. Cutting I.R.S. funding, then, wasn’t about fiscal responsibility as much as it was about ensuring that Republicans had support from their own members — some of whom had threatened to vote against the bill unless it contained spending cuts.
What’s more, the battles being fought within the Republican conference often don’t appear to be in pursuit of policy objectives — the fighting itself is the point.
Add persistently narrow congressional majorities, which give party leaders less room to maneuver, plus the fact that the appropriations process is often the only legislative game in town and Republicans’ persistent fights over whether leaders are sufficiently committed to ideological principles, and you get an environment in which it is extremely difficult for Congress to carry out its basic legislative responsibilities.
The particular nature of this year’s conflicts does not bode well for Congress’s prospects for meeting the nation’s future fiscal challenges. Any “grand bargain” that would make the combination of spending cuts and tax increases likely to be needed in the long run will be a heavy political lift. Success in reducing the deficit requires both substantive agreement on future policy direction and the political will to stick to those commitments.
It’s not just the long term that will be challenging. The nature of this week’s deal means that Congress and the president will find themselves navigating these same waters — and the fundamental realities of divided government — in early 2024.
Molly Reynolds (@mollyereynolds) is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Exceptions to the Rule: The Politics of Filibuster Limitations in the U.S. Senate.”
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