Speaking Of America

Why the US Budget is on the edge again

The United States government's Budget looks set to be blocked again for the Oct 1 new fiscal year. Why? Reason: Holding the country's Budget hostage over a side issue propels lawmakers to national attention and gains them a reputation for being tough, which appeals to conservative Republicans.

WASHINGTON • With five days left to go before the United States government's new fiscal year begins on Oct 1, there is a sense of deja vu in the American capital.

For the third year running, Congress has entered the final stretch of September without any clear pathway to an agreement on a new Budget. For the third year running, the US government is teetering on the brink of a shutdown.

While lawmakers successfully averted a shutdown at the 11th hour last year through an awkward compromise that involved funding all but one government agency, the government did actually shut down for two weeks in 2013.

Before 2013, there was only one other full scale shutdown of the US government - a period of 27 days split between two tranches (Nov 14 to 19 and Dec 16 to Jan 6) in 1995 and 1996. This was under president Bill Clinton, when a conflict over government spending cuts triggered shutdowns. That shutdown ended with a compromise that involved modest spending cuts but also included tax increases. The 2013 version ended when Republicans finally abandoned their battle to dismantle the president's landmark healthcare law.

While it is unclear what the fate of the Budget will be this year, many pundits are saying the odds are better than even that the government will be forced to close its doors come Oct 1. And many expect almost every future Budget to be negotiated under similar duress.

The question that comes to mind, of course, is why?


Why did a problem that reared its ugly head so rarely in the past suddenly become a yearly occurrence? Why does the world's largest superpower struggle every year just to keep the lights on in government? And why are politicians now so willing to push the country to the brink of a shutdown, even though everyone agrees it is harmful and unpopular with the American public?

The short answer is that a significant number of politicians believe they can benefit from at least pretending they are willing to push the country over the edge for a particular cause. To what extent they believe in the cause they are using to drive the Budget over a cliff is another matter.


Looked at cynically, it is easy to dismiss the cause as irrelevant - it's been a different one every time and it tends to be one that is polling well with the base at that point in time.

In 1995, the big issue was a balanced Budget; in 2013, it was repealing Obamacare, the healthcare plan; last year, reversing President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration was deemed worth holding the Budget hostage over; this year, it's about denying funds to pro-abortion group Planned Parenthood.

In each case, the playbook is the same: Take an issue that will energise your base and is polling well and tack it on to the Budget - thus leaving your political opponents the difficult choice of accepting the controversial measure or shut down the government by blocking it.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich - who was the chief architect of the 1995 to 1996 shutdown, explained the strategy in 2010 when he started agitating for the Republican party to force a shutdown over Obamacare.

Speaking at a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation in Washington that year, Mr Gingrich reportedly said: "There's a new poll out this morning. By 58 to 38, people want to repeal the healthcare Bill. It'll get worse as people learn more and as the failure of the Bill becomes more obvious. So if you take that model, all the Republican Congress needs to say in January is, 'We won't fund it'. What the president needs to decide is: He's going to veto the Bill. He needs to force a crisis on an issue that's a 58 to 38 issue."

The line of reasoning here is that by folding a partisan issue into must-pass legislation, you either score a legislative victory by getting your opponents to support a measure they would otherwise oppose or, at worst, you make a name for yourself by appearing to have steadfastly fought for your cause.

This logic is particularly appealing to lawmakers with aspirations of running for higher office. And indeed, three of the four Republican senators currently vying for the Oval Office have, at different times, exploited their procedural rights in Congress to achieve political goals.

Of these, only Texas Senator Ted Cruz has tried to hijack the Budget process. In 2013, he was widely regarded as the key actor in the Republican pushing for the shutdown. This year, he is once again at the forefront, although this time advocating for defunding Planned Parenthood.

The organisation, which provides reproductive healthcare services - including abortion and birth control - has come under fire over the past few months after videos were leaked highlighting its practice of providing fetal tissue to researchers. The battle in Congress has since morphed into a proxy for the broader abortion issue.

Two senators - Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul - also held important laws hostage but went for ones where the stakes were arguably lower. In April, Mr Rubio held up the passage of a law that would allow lawmakers a chance to review the Iran nuclear deal by insisting that the legislation include the stipulation that the deal could take effect only if Iran first recognised the state of Israel. A month later, Mr Paul spent 11 hours obstructing a Senate that was trying to renew authorisation for government intelligence gathering under the Patriot Act.

All three ultimately failed to achieve their stated legislative goals - Obamacare was not repealed, the Iran nuclear agreement review law did not include Mr Rubio's amendment, and the Patriot Act was reauthorised - but the trio emerged with credentials among the conservative base.

In fact, it has become such a common occurrence in recent years that some factions in the conservative base have now come to expect the Budget to he held hostage, if only to signal that lawmakers care about a particular cause. Still, the move is very much the preserve of the party's fringe, with moderate establishment Republicans often frustrated by the posturing. As Republican congressman Mike Simpson told Politico: "People say, 'Oh, you didn't even try to do x'. There are some things you can't do. We tried to repeal Obamacare 50-some odd times in the House and guess what? It didn't work. We probably should have figured that out after two or three."


That the situation has gotten to this point is partly down to the toxic political environment in Washington and partly due to a rejection of conventional thinking about government shutdowns.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1995 to 1996 government shutdown, there was a consensus that the move had been a disaster for the Republican Party that controlled Congress at the time.

The move seemed to re-energise President Clinton and the Democrats who were soundly beaten at the 1994 midterms, and it was even credited with helping Mr Clinton win re-election in 1996. From the moment the shutdown began, it was clear that the public sided with the president. His job approval ratings shot up instantly and he quickly overtook the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in the polls.

In the years since, the lessons of 1995 and 1996 were either forgotten or rewritten. When Republicans talk about the two-decade-old shutdown today, they tend to gloss over the presidential election and note that the party did not do too badly when it came to elections for Congress.

In 1996, the Republicans gained two seats in the Senate and lost only two seats in the House. To compound matters, those looking at what happened after the 2013 shutdown will find further evidence that shutdowns do no harm.

The Republicans had a strong showing in last year's mid-term elections, expanding their majority in the House and regaining control of the Senate.

What they forget is that Republicans were faring terribly in the polls immediately after the shutdown, right until the Obama administration botched the roll-out of Obamacare.

Still, it is clear that there is no longer a consensus over whether causing a shutdown automatically leads to punishment at the ballot box.

It would probably be too much to suggest that anyone, even those operating under the haze of a presidential campaign, actually wants to trigger a shutdown that would hurt hundreds of thousands of workers.

But the incentives right now appear to be stacked such that someone will always at least want to flirt with the possibility of a shutdown.

What looks like unnecessarily risky or incompetent legislating to those outside the US, makes perfect sense in Washington.

And that is what has left the government once again staring down the barrel of a government shutdown. The problem with always operating on the brink, of course, is that every now and then, you are going to fall over the edge.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2015, with the headline 'Why the US Budget is on the edge again'. Print Edition | Subscribe