Four Things to Consider About a Possible Second Government Shutdown

Matt Glassman | February 5, 2019

The FY2019 appropriations process in Congress—which will provide funding for the federal government from October 1, 2018, until September 30, 2019—is once again approaching a deadline.

After managing to pass five of the twelve annual appropriations bills in two “mini-bus” packages in late September, Congress passed two continuing resolutions (the first through December 7; a second through December 22) to keep the remainder of the government operating on a temporary basis.

In late December, the House and Senate appeared to reach a deal for a third continuing resolution on the remaining appropriations bills that would have funded those agencies through early February. President Trump, however, announced his opposition to any deal that did not include funding for his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Unable to reach a compromise in Congress, funding for the government agencies funded by those seven bills expired on December 22, resulting in a 35-day partial shutdown.

The shutdown ended on January 25, when Congress passed legislation reopening the government for three weeks, as negotiations continued on an immigration compromise that could allow the FY2019 appropriations process to come to completion.

As the new deadline—February 15—approaches, concerns have once again arisen that there will be a second shutdown. The president seems as publicly committed as ever to not signing a bill that does not include funding for his proposed wall. The Democratic leadership seems, if anything, more adamantly opposed. On the surface, it does not appear that much has changed since late December.

In reality, however, many of the dynamics that led to the December shutdown have changed substantially. While any outcome is possible—particularly given the president’s willingness to take daring stands— the current political environment makes a second shutdown unlikely and, if it does occur, almost certainly much shorter.

First, the 35-day shutdown provided a lot of new information. We now know that the Democrats are solidly committed to not funding a border wall, and that the Republicans are somewhat divided on both the wall question and the strategy of using a shutdown as leverage to try to achieve it. None of this was clear in December. Now that it is, many Republicans will see less value in pursuing the same strategy a second time.

More importantly, the shutdown demonstrated that the president is going to take the majority of the political blame for any subsequent shutdown. The government reopened in late January largely because Republicans in Congress forced the president’s hand, telling him that they would not have the votes to sustain a continued shutdown and that he needed to strike a deal.

It is unlikely public opinion would suddenly place blame on the Democrats. There will be little interest among Republicans in restarting that public blame dynamic, now that they know what it will entail. As Majority Leader McConnell likes to say, “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule.”

Second, a restarted shutdown would almost certainly not be treated by the public as something new, but instead as a continuation of the first shutdown, with all its attendant damage and frustration. Public and media attention would likely treat a renewed shutdown as starting on day 36, not day 1. The political pressure to reopen the government tends to grow over the course of a shutdown. In this case, it would start at an elevated level.  Lacking the appetite to continue the shutdown two weeks ago, it is likely that Republicans would seek to end a second one before it starts.

Street-level bureaucrats in the executive branch may have less patience this time around as well. It took several weeks during the first shutdown for TSA agents and air traffic controllers to begin taking direct action. They are unlikely to reset the clock, and it would not be surprising to see immediate issues at airports around the country if a second shutdown occurred.

Third, the president is unlikely to force another shutdown. In December, there was some chance that the public would blame the Democrats for the shutdown, and that the Democrats would respond by negotiating a wall deal that was favorable to the president. We now know both of those things aren’t true. This gives President Trump much less reason to pursue a shutdown as a means of achieving his goals.

Much more likely is that, if no deal is possible in the next two weeks, the president will attempt to use his authority under the National Emergency Act to build the wall with previously appropriated money. While this strategy may end up tied up in court challenges, it would allow the president to agree to reopen the government without giving in to the demands of his opponents.

Finally, it’s not the case that the lack of progress in the past ten days is a sign that we should expect a shutdown. It’s not at all unusual for appropriations negotiations to come right down to the deadline. The logic of negotiations leads both sides to engage in brinksmanship; holding out allows you the greatest chance to maximize your bargaining position. Even if a deal was almost certain to happen, it will likely come relatively late in the bargaining period.

There has always been a deal available that allows both sides to save face and claim some form of victory. The president could relent on the wall in exchange for increased funding for border security. If he proposed $5.7B in funding for various border security measures but not for a wall, it is likely the Democrats would accept that offer. They could claim they secured the border without a wall, and the president could claim he used his leverage to increase funding for border security. This is probably still the most likely scenario.

Matt Glassman is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute


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