Shutdowns are for toddler tantrums, not Congress

It’s time for the U.S. government to grow up, play nice and do their jobs.

(Noah Demus / Daily Trojan)

Oct. 1 doesn’t mean much to me other than the midway point through the semester and the looming threat of midterms, but for the United States Congress, it’s a date they cannot afford to forget.

For better or for worse, Congress is in charge of the government’s budgeting and with that comes passing 12 annual appropriation bills that fund government agencies by Oct. 1. Now, for us silly, forgetful college students, when we miss a deadline, the worst that might happen is a few points off our grade or, if it’s a bill, some accrued interest. For Congress, missing that deadline means a government shutdown.

During a shutdown, federal agencies don’t receive any funding, employees have to work without pay and can’t do anything about it until Congress approves their funding. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the five-week partial government shutdown in 2018-19 reduced economic output by $11 billion and the 2013 full government shutdown reduced GDP growth by $20 billion. 

Now here’s the kicker: While public servants working to make ends meet are forced to wait indefinitely for their paychecks, members of Congress — who are causing the problem — still get paid. 

If there’s one thing the U.S. excels at, it’s hypocrisy. You should face the consequences of your own actions, simple as that. But for some sick twisted reason, when Congress misses its own deadline, the ones who suffer are the citizens and country it’s supposed to be looking out for. 

This all goes back to the Antideficiency Act that was passed in 1884, which prohibits federal agencies from spending any money without approval from Congress. However, this wasn’t always the case. Originally, the law just banned the government from signing contracts without Congress’ approval. 

According to BBC writers Robin Levinson King and Anthony Zurcher, “for almost a century, if there was a gap in budgets, the government had allowed necessary spending to continue.” But, after a narrow interpretation amended into the law under President Jimmy Carter’s administration, in 1980, “the government took a much stricter view: no budget, no spending.”

If this sounds a bit extreme, it is. Above all else, it’s a choice, and one of the most ignorant ones Congress can make as it usually occurs when members of Congress decide that politics are more important than people and they can’t put differences aside to agree on a plan. The big disagreement that nearly shut down the government this year was due to conservative demands for deeper spending cuts in the House despite an initial agreement set back in May.

Foreign Policy writer Joshua Keating explains that having a government so deadlocked in budgeting disagreements that it stops working is, unfortunately, a U.S. specialty — other countries are pale in comparison.

“In a parliamentary system, used by the vast majority of democracies in Europe and Asia, the budget process is similar on paper: The prime minister prepares a ‘government budget’ and submits it to parliament for a vote. But if parliament rejects that budget, that’s generally considered a sign that the government no longer has the confidence of parliament and has to resign,” Keating writes.

That’s not to say other countries don’t encounter budgeting issues. 

In 2007, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s spending plans were rejected by Congress and the fiscal year began without a budget. Sweden faced the same problem in 2014 when its left-of-center minority government lost the budget vote. But no matter how severe the disagreements were, the government continued to fulfill its duties as usual.

Writing about the U.S. government shutdown in 2013, Anthony Zurcher at BBC News stated, “for most of the world, a government shutdown is very bad news — the result of revolution, invasion, or disaster. [But] even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers’ wages.”

While the separation of powers is one of the U.S. government’s few noteworthy features, checks and balances should not get in the way of citizens’ ability to feed their families and live their lives. The political divide in this country continues to drag us into pits of despair. It’s not too late to pull ourselves out though. Whether or not Congress will by their new deadline of Nov. 17 is up to them. 

Helen Nguyen is a graduate student writing about law and social issues in her column, “Law & Disorder.” Her column, “Law and Disorder,” runs every other Wednesday.

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