Most Americans would probably be thrilled at this point if they never had to hear the words “government shutdown” ever again.
Sen. Ron Johnson is certainly one of them. The Wisconsin Republican, one of the chamber’s most reliably conservative voices, has been blocking a trio of government funding bills from advancing in the Senate. But he’s offered to stand down in return for a vote on legislation that would prevent future shutdowns by keeping the government funded at the previous year’s spending levels should Congress fail to enact a budget.
It’s made for a striking contrast with his hard-right GOP counterparts in the House, who are trying to use the possibility of a shutdown to force votes on conservative priorities (and spiraling Congress and their party into chaos in the process).
“This is what we do in Wisconsin. If you have dysfunction, and you don’t fund the whole government, or any agency, you don’t shut it down. You just spend at last year’s levels,” Johnson told Semafor. “What could be more common sense, what could be more reasonable?”
Proposals to make shutdowns a thing of the past aren’t exactly new: Lawmakers introduced several in 2019, following the longest government closure in U.S. history (sample name: The Stop STUPIDITY Act). Johnson is throwing his weight behind a bipartisan measure known as the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act. Written by Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla. and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., it would fund the government two weeks at a time, while imposing measures aimed at forcing lawmakers to stay in DC and negotiate a budget. Among them: It would cut off government funds for member travel, limit adjournments to 24 hours, and prohibit votes on most other legislation until a budget was passed.
Those steps are meant to address concerns often raised by Democrats, who fear that such automatic funding proposals would take the pressure off of Republicans to actually negotiate on new spending since they could freeze the budget by default. Government shutdowns have tended to inflict political damage on the GOP and force them back to the negotiating table. Allowing Washington to run on autopilot probably would not.
“Auto-CRs turn must-pass bills into should-pass bills,” Bobby Kogan, the senior director of federal budget policy at the Center for American Progress, put it. “The auto-CRs you see freeze at the prior year’s level, or worse. A freeze is a cut, because it doesn’t keep up with inflation or growing need.”
So far, there doesn’t appear to be much appetite among Democratic leaders to give the bill a floor vote. One reason: They may be skeptical that the bill’s various sticks will successfully prod lawmakers to negotiate on a budget, leaving them at a disadvantage in future showdowns.
Johnson said he believes that eliminating the threat of shutdowns would give more leverage to lawmakers who’d like to reduce spending, since party leaders wouldn’t be able to use a looming emergency to force through large omnibus bills. “Shutdowns definitely play into the hands of people mortgaging our children’s future,” he said.
Most of the Democrats and independents who have gravitated toward the idea also appear to be fiscal moderates. Along with Hassan, the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act is backed by Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz. as well as Sens. Angus King, I-Maine and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., who both caucus with Democrats. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. and Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. introduced their own bill to prevent shutdowns earlier this month.
The outside groups backing the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act include a number of conservative groups — such as Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks, and the America First Policy Institute — as well as the centrist fiscal hawks, such as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
While some House conservatives have fixated on using shutdowns as a way to extract immediate spending cuts — or at least force show votes on them — fiscal conservatives more interested in playing the long game see benefits to taking them off the table entirely. If Johnson’s bill passed, it could significantly change the tenor of future talks.
Room for Disagreement
Democrats see a basic good governance argument for putting government spending on autopilot. “Government shutdowns have disastrous consequences for federal employees and government contractors and slow down critical government services that millions of Americans rely on like getting replacement Social Security cards and food inspections,” Kaine said in a statement earlier this month. “This is unacceptable, which is why I’m reintroducing my bill to prevent government shutdowns.”