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After long and costly shutdown, lawmakers seek ways to prevent future ones

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks to KHQA from Capitol Hill on Jan. 30, 2019. (KHQA)

As members of Congress stare down another possible government shutdown in mid-February, some lawmakers are looking for ways to ensure unresolved budget disputes do not leave federal workers furloughed without pay in the future.

“At the very least, we ought to have a continuing resolution that, if for some reason we can’t get to an agreement, the United States government does not shut down,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., Wednesday. “That sends a bad message to the world. Its unfair to a lot of hard-working men and women who work in the federal government or whose jobs depend on the federal government.”

Several bills have been proposed in the House and Senate recently that would trigger automatic continuing resolutions if an appropriations bill is not signed by the start of the fiscal year. Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, said he is open to the idea but he has some reservations.

“There would need to be some kind of flipside on that,” he said. “There would need to be a hook, there would need to be some kind of trigger or lever for that shutdown not to occur. The devil’s in the details, but some kind of reduction in spending that went along with that, I could support something like that.”

The Congressional Research Service noted similar concerns in a 2015 report on automatic continuing resolutions, which have been considered in various forms since the 1980s.

“Those who oppose an ACR mechanism have posited that its adoption would create an advantage for the current level of federal spending relative to other proposed levels during subsequent budget negotiations,” the report stated. “Opponents have also claimed that the threat of a government shutdown causes serious negotiations and compromise to occur, and by lessening or eliminating this threat, the enactment of regular appropriations would be more difficult.”

The authors of various current bills attempt to address this either by including automatic spending cuts if no deal is reached after 90 days or by suspending the pay of members of Congress and White House staff. The Shutdown to End All Shutdowns Act, announced by a group of freshman House Democrats Tuesday, would prohibit the use of federal funds for members’ travel and hold their pay in escrow until a budget is passed.

“As a former federal worker for 14 years, I’m proud to be introducing a bill that ensures federal workers aren’t held hostage by stalled negotiations and puts real skin in the game for members of Congress and the president if they can’t do their jobs,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., at a press conference.

Although these automatic CRs would be intended to prevent the uncertainty and chaos created by shutdowns, some experts say they would create problems of their own. In a report released Wednesday, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities warned allowing the CRs to take effect could become the default approach for lawmakers instead of passing full-year budgets on time.

“Even though CRs avoid shutdowns, they can cause considerable uncertainty, inefficiency, and disruption,” the report stated. “Their effects extend well beyond the federal government, as state and local governments, nonprofit agencies, scientific researchers, and the many other recipients of federal financial support can’t fully plan or proceed with that work until full-year funding decisions are made.”

President Trump, who threatened shutdowns several times over the last two years and said in December he would be proud to take blame for the most recent one, has not indicated whether he would support this kind of legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she would be interested in considering a bill that averts future shutdowns, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would look at any bipartisan solutions.

“There certainly would be no education in the third kick of a mule,” McConnell said Tuesday. “I don’t like shutdowns. I don’t think they work for anybody.”

According to Rep. Schrader, the five-week shutdown the nation just endured illustrated how costly allowing government services to just stop working due to budget disputes can be, and it would have gotten much worse if a deal was not struck to end it last Friday.

“We were getting dangerously close to having lots of private enterprises affected,” he said. “Different drug policies couldn’t be implemented, people couldn’t get grant requests filed, permits weren’t getting done. It was getting to a point where you would have seen a huge ripple turn into a big, big wave of economic catastrophe if that shutdown had gone on much longer.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a co-sponsor of two Senate bills that would eliminate shutdowns with automatic CRs, acknowledged the solution is less than ideal, but it is better than the alternative.

“I’m not a fan of continuing resolutions, but if it does prevent future government shutdowns, that is something we need to consider,” she said.

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