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US government shutdowns

Mike McCartney

5th March 2024

Why and when do they happen?

A quick look at comparing the UK and US systems is useful as a bit of background.

A special type of legislation is one that controls the nation’s finances. In parliamentary systems, since governments often have built in majorities, annual budgets and stiff opposition is unusual. In the UK Parliament is responsible for checking and approving Government spending. Each year the House of Commons authorises taxes and public expenditure which provides the Government with the money it needs to deliver its policies and run vital services in areas such as Health, Education and Defence. The Leader of the Opposition, rather than the Shadow Chancellor, replies to the Chancellor’s Budget Speech. The Budget is then usually followed by four days of debate on the tax measures announced in the Budget, called the ‘Budget Resolutions’. Each day of debate covers a different policy area. The Shadow Chancellor makes his response the day after the Budget statement during the Budget debates. Budget Resolutions can come into effect immediately if the House of Commons agrees to them at the end of the four days of debate but they require the Finance Bill to give them permanent legal effect. It is extremely rare for British governments to face an effective challenge from the Commons on fiscal policy, but Cameron did receive a bloody nose over the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. The Lords have no power over money bills, but in a dramatic assertion of its authority, the House of Lords defeated in October 2015 the Conservatives over planned tax credit cuts. In the US, the situation is almost the polar opposite. According to A1S7 of the Constitution money bills start life in the House, but Congress as a whole is invested with the “power of the purse”. For a budget to pass, the bill must go through a long and complex process. And due to the increased partisanship and polarisation in Congress, with Democrats unwilling to accept budgets where spending is cut significantly and the GOP in in Congress unwilling to accept significant tax increases, members have been at loggerheads and as a consequence between 1977 and 2014, for example, there were only four occasions when Congress managed to pass all 12 appropriations bills before the October fiscal deadline. When Congress fails to meet the budget deadlines they often pass continuing resolutions which maintain the funding government departments. In 2013, however, a planned attack by the GOP on Obama’s health care funding resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government. This meant 800,000 government employees were sent home without pay. It is difficult to say therefore that Congress has effectively carried out its financial control function effectively in recent years.

Thus when looking at the US system of government it is not just the fact that they have separate institutions sharing powers' (Neustadt) but that it recent decades the political system has become infected by a hyper-polarisation between two traditional parties that were once accused of being too similar - almost like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, went the accusation.

This gap between the increasingly partisan parties shows no signs of going away, and government shutdown now look like the new normal.

Questions based on the video:

1. Why is the US the only country that can experience a government shutdown?

2. What is the significance of the Anti-Deficiency Act in relation to government spending?

3. How do spending bills become a platform for other legislative measures?

4. Why is Congress struggling to pass a significant number of laws each session?

5. What is the typical timeline for passing budget resolutions and spending bills in Congress?

6. How does ideological polarization in Congress impact the budget process?

7. Why is split district representation in Congress at a historic low?

Suggested answers:

1. The US can shut down its government because of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which prohibits spending beyond appropriations made by Congress.

2. The Anti-Deficiency Act was passed to prevent agencies from overspending their budgets, leading to the need for annual funding bills.

3. Spending bills often include various unrelated measures, turning them into a platform for additional legislative actions.

4. Congress is passing fewer laws due to a lack of consensus and a slow legislative pace.

5. Budget resolutions should be passed by mid-April, but this hasn't occurred in 20 years, and spending bills are rarely passed on time.

6. Ideological polarization makes it challenging for parties to compromise and reach agreements on funding bills.

7. Split district representation in Congress has decreased, reinforcing partisanship and making bipartisan agreements more difficult to achieve.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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