How Government Shuts Down

Imagine you have two parties in government who both want to raise the budget, one by six percent, and the other by fifteen. While there exists disagreement about how much the budget should increase, at the very least all parties agree that the budget shouldn’t decrease. One would think that it would be impossible for this to lead to a government shutdown. Even if both parties continue arguing until the end of time about how much the budget ought to be increased, because both are in agreement that the budget should not go down, it ought to be a fairly simple matter to pass continuing resolutions to maintain government spending at the same level government spent over the last biennium. Because both sides want to spend at least that much, both sides ought always to consider that preferable to spending any less than that much.


Nonetheless, the political process often makes what ought to be easy stopgap measures very difficult to obtain. Because the level of spending over the last biennium is always closer to one party’s target than the other, passage of a continuing resolution would be counterproductive for the more extreme party in budget negotiations. The moderate party has no need to compromise with the extreme party if the extreme party will continue to authorize spending at previous levels, levels which favor the moderates. The only leverage the extreme party has is the ability to shut down the government if the moderates don’t compromise.


By all means, it may be unfair that the moderates have a naturally stronger hand in budget debates, but the political process, like life in general, isn’t fair. This does not excuse the use of the nuclear option, the shutdown, as leverage to level the playing field. When people are laid off during a shutdown, the party that will not authorize a continuing resolution is at fault. If citizens go unprotected due to cuts to law enforcement, the party that will not authorize a continuing resolution is culpable. If welfare is interrupted, the party that will not authorize a continuing resolution is responsible.


“I don’t want politicians to point fingers and blame each other for whose fault the shutdown is,” one often hears. “I just want all parties to compromise.” But parties don’t need to compromise to keep the government from shutting down. Both parties already agree that no less than $X ought to be spent and could authorize it in a heartbeat. The extremists simply don’t want people to realize they’re playing a game of chicken with the budget because they have no other viable negotiating tactics. When one rejects continuing resolutions as a political ploy, one bears sole responsibility for the government shutdown. It need not happen. You don’t want it to happen. You can stop it from happening. But you won’t because you need to use it in a game of brinkmanship.


The above scenario is not fiction. The moderates trying to increase spending by six percent are the Republicans in the Minnesota legislature. The extremist, trying to increase it by fifteen, is Governor Mark Dayton.


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