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The longest shutdown

  • Published at 12:00 am January 23rd, 2019
US Federal Government shutdown
Who wants a wall? REUTERS

The House leadership and the president need to reach a settlement

For over a month now, the news that has been attracting domestic and international media is the shutdown of the US federal government over presidential veto on the budgets for federal agencies. 

Albeit the impasse over budget affects half of the federal government departments, the news of shutdown gives the impression of a total government shutdown, but it is not the case. Unlike most countries where an annual budget is presented by the government through its finance minister to the parliament where it is discussed, and approved with or without amendment by the legislators -- the US government budget process starts early in the year well before October 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

The president submits a detailed budget request to Congress, which is reviewed and discussed by budget committees of both houses. Then the two committees pass their own budget resolutions, reconcile any differences between the two resolutions, and decide on budget ceilings (authority) for the federal agencies or programs. However, the budget resolutions are not actual budgets until they go through Appropriations Committees in each house.

Funds for federal agencies must be authorized by the 12 appropriations committees following the allocations set by the budget resolutions. Each sub-committee prepares a budget total, allocations, and entitlements in the form of a bill that passes both houses and then is presented to the president for his signature. 

In other words, the federal budget is not a monolith, it is a set of 12 appropriation bills that Congress sends to the president. In recent years, Congress has not passed all 12 appropriations bills in time before the fiscal year because of differences between either two houses or between the executive and the legislature over spending items or spending level. 

In such cases, the programs are normally allowed to operate the next fiscal year with the previous year’s allocation (called a continuing resolution). But if there is no continuing resolution, the affected programs remain unfunded, leading to a partial shutdown as it happened this year, and also two other occasions in the last 12 years. Only that this year’s shutdown has been the longest -- 32 days and counting. 

How does a partial government shutdown affect the country? How would furloughing and not paying salaries of 800,000 employees impact a country of 330 million people spread over 50 states? 

Are the average citizens greatly worried over this shutdown, or is the showdown merely a display of a political boxing match between a president adamant on his demands for a wall in the southern border and a disdainful opposition party that suddenly took over control of the House of Representatives?

In reality, the everyday life of the average citizen in the US is not dominated by the federal government, except on solitary occasions such as paying federal taxes. The federal government employees account for less than 10% of more than 21 million government employees in the USA. In life, the average US citizen has 10 times more interactions with government agencies at city and county level than at the federal level.

Fortunately, the government agencies or departments they have to deal with are not funded federally but by local governments. In other words, the government shutdown at the federal level does not affect the average citizen. Hence, the majority in the US seem to look upon this shutdown more as a political power play than an economic threat, at least for now.

For one thing, the shutdown underscores the divisiveness that has characterized the country since Donald Trump got elected with his anti-immigration, anti-globalization, and nationalist rhetoric. He carried out a good number of his campaign promises against immigration, multilateral trade, and taxation with executive orders and a compliant Congress -- until he hit the wall with his promised wall with Mexico -- a project he deeply feels loyal to. 

The wall, originally envisaged as over 2,000 miles long, to be made of concrete, would require over $40billion. But of late, he toned it down by many degrees as well as dropped his campaign threat that he would make Mexico pay for the wall -- all because he found enormous opposition to it, not just because of the cost, but also of the impracticality of building such a long wall through terrain that makes such a project impossible. 

So, he amended his demand gradually, the last being a request that Congress authorize an appropriations bill that includes $5.7bn which will allow a 234 miles long wall in Texas-Mexico border. But Congress, now dominated by the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, with Nancy Pelosi as the new Speaker of the House, will have none of it. And Donald Trump will not sign any budget bill that does not give him money for the wall.  

As the stalemate continues in Washington DC, immediate sufferers are the furloughed federal employees and those essential government employees who are made to work without a paycheck. The public, in general, is not suffering except those who like to visit the federally funded museums and parks. But they can do without visiting museums and parks. What the country cannot and should not afford is the looming danger of intransigent conduct that lies ahead between two branches of government. 

Today it is the appropriations bill and the tug of war between president and Congress over a wall. Tomorrow it may be over other serious legislative matters, foreign relations, and US security globally. 

In democracies, people have a choice over their government and the representatives they choose. The mid-term elections have already moved power to the Democratic Party. But without control of the whole Congress and the Executive Office, one party alone cannot be the arbiter of the nation. 

That is why it will be imperative for both House leadership and the presidency to come to a settlement, end the current impasse, and not hold the whole country as  hostage. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.