The U.S. government is set to run out of money later this week, not because the U.S. has suddenly gotten poor, but because hard-liners within the GOP are looking for major policy concessions from the White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate simply to keep government operations afloat. Without those concessions, many Republicans have made it clear they will refuse to cast their votes for the 12 appropriations bills that keep the system ticking along.
This is the latest installment of what has become an entirely dysfunctional congressional ritual — using vital legislative deadlines as bargaining chips in a high-stakes effort to impose a far right agenda on the body politic. If the borrowing limit needs to be raised, a significant number of Republicans simply refuse to vote for the increase. If government needs to be funded through appropriations bills, as is the case this week, these same hard-liners see it as an opportunity to leverage their votes in exchange for massive cuts to federal spending and the adoption of a raft of other policy demands.
Earlier this year, GOP hard-liners took the United States to the brink of a debt default by pushing to torpedo any deal to increase the debt ceiling. Since the U.S. spends more than it takes in in taxes — not because it lacks wealth but because it has long been allergic to taxing wealthy individuals and corporations at a level that would generate the required revenues to offset its spending obligations — it has to borrow growing quantities of money; and because of a quirk in the U.S. Constitution that requires Congress to approve an increase in the borrowing limit, this opens the door to all kinds of political shenanigans. Ultimately, the House leadership and the White House came to an agreement that kept government afloat in exchange for cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) and other discretionary spending, built around a requirement that abled-bodied adults meet work requirements in order to receive benefits.
On Tuesday night, GOP and Democratic leaders in the Senate unveiled a bipartisan stopgap bill to keep the government funded beyond the end of the week. It included $6 billion in aid for Ukraine, and a roughly similar sum to keep afloat FEMA’s disaster-relief responses. Within minutes, Speaker McCarthy had made it clear he would only advance the bill if it included large increases in funding for border security. It was, GOP sources said, an effort to make border issues front-center stage. Those same sources reported, according to CNN, that, in order to appease his hard-line critics, McCarthy would also strip out aid to Ukraine.
The result of these changes, and of McCarthy, at the urging of his extreme right flank, continually shifting the goalposts on what it will take for the House GOP to agree to keep the government running, make it deeply unlikely that the House and Senate will come to an agreement before this weekend.
The October 1 shutdown, if it happens, will occur not because a majority in either the House or the Senate want the government to cease regular operations, but because a small cadre of far right anti-government extremists in the House are holding Speaker McCarthy’s feet to the fire and demanding everything from an impeachment inquiry into President Biden to massive cuts in federal spending and a revisiting of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Ukraine in exchange for ponying up the votes that would allow McCarthy to pass appropriations bills without relying on Democratic support. And since accepting such support is seen as practically treasonous by the Freedom Caucus and other far right groupings in Congress, and could cost the speaker his job, McCarthy is going out of his way to make clear he wants to pass spending bills with only GOP support, despite knowing full well that such bills would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate. It is a particularly unsavory form of spectacle politics.
Despite the increasingly frantic efforts of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of moderates, to find a legislative path that could bypass the extremists, and force a House vote over the objections of the speaker, as of this writing McCarthy is still seemingly determined to go it alone — though he has been quoted as shouting some choice words recently at the far-rightists in his caucus during his efforts to push the party to vote on the appropriation bills. In this context, given the fractiousness of the GOP in the House, given Trump’s egging on of the extremists and his calls to shut down the government as a way to “defund” the prosecutions that he is facing, and given the nihilistic efforts by many on the far right to simply burn everything down, the speaker’s efforts look more like a quick lemming trot toward the cliffs than a serious effort at good governance.
If McCarthy can’t gain control over his caucus in the next couple days and move toward votes to keep the government funded, the consequences will be felt immediately: Most national parks will shut to the public next week, though legislators in Utah have said that they’ll step in to fund national parks in that state during a shutdown. Food stamp recipients might see their benefits delayed if the shutdown lasts more than a month. Military personnel and other federal employees won’t get their paychecks. Social security recipients will still get their monthly checks, but they won’t be able to get proof-of-benefits when applying for other assistance. The EPA and OSHA won’t be able to conduct inspections — meaning that drinking water will be less safe, hazardous sites won’t be monitored, and dangerous work environments will go unchecked. There will be longer lines at airports and longer wait times to get passports renewed. Federal funds for medical research into deadly diseases will grind to a halt.
All of these are immediate impacts. Then there are the slow burn ones.
If the shutdown lasts more than a few days, WIC recipients won’t receive their benefits, meaning impoverished mothers and their children will be denied a vital financial life line. And Meals on Wheels won’t get federal reimbursements, which means many local food efforts aimed at helping the elderly will have to stop operations. Thousands of kids could lose their access to Head Start. And the longer the shutdown lasts, the more likely it is that federal funding streams to schools and universities will start to dry up.
Come next week, if the Republicans in Congress don’t get their act together, there will be an awful lot of pain and inconvenience that will ultimately be felt by vast numbers of Americans. Some analysts have said that if the shutdown lasts a couple months, it could push the economy into a recession.
If past history is any guide, while the stock market tends to shrug shutdowns off, credit ratings agencies tend to at least mutter about downgrading the country’s credit rating, which puts upward pressure on already high interest rates. Last month, the Fitch rating agency downgraded the U.S.’s rating, specifically referencing the difficulties Congress has in keeping the government open; other agencies could well soon follow suit. If they do, it will be an entirely needless, self-inflicted injury brought to the country courtesy of the Matt Gaetzes and Marjorie Taylor Greenes of this dysfunctional congressional majority.
Disproportionately, as seems so often to be the case, the pain will fall especially hard, and especially quickly, on those who are poorest and most reliant on one form or another of federal assistance. In 2018-2019, for example, when the government shut down for over a month, the IRS temporarily ceased processing tax refunds.
This is, unfortunately, an increasingly well-worn story. Since the 1970s, the government has shut down 21 times, though in the 1970s the shutdowns were generally short and the consequences quickly mitigated. In the 1990s, under Newt Gingrich, the GOP began weaponizing congressional power to not fund government, essentially holding the economy hostage to its whims, and using the threat of a shutdown or a default on debt obligations to try to extract concessions from Democrats on future spending. As a result, recent shutdowns have lasted longer and the political fallout has been more toxic. Shutdowns during the Clinton and Obama presidencies went on for several weeks; and under Trump the president basically ordered his minions in Congress to shut the government down unless the Democrats agreed to include funding for Trump’s border wall in any budget deal to keep the federal system funded.
Each time the government shudders to a halt, it forces huge numbers of “non-essential” federal employees to stay home till they can be paid again; and hundreds of thousands of “essential” federal employees, including those in the military, in the TSA, in the Federal Aviation Administration, and other agencies, to work without pay until Congress comes to its senses and they get backpay. It also forces large numbers of government bureaucracies to go into survival mode, slowing down benefits checks to needy Americans, increasing wait times for passport renewals, limiting workplace and environmental safety inspections, and so on.
None of this is necessary; all of it is avoidable. If the government shuts down next week, it won’t be because both parties are equally to blame. Rather, it will be because a Republican speaker lost control over his own members and allowed the most extreme elements to dictate critical legislative decisions.