Maine independent Sen. Angus King and his Republican colleague Jim Lankford of Oklahoma recently floated an idea to prevent future federal shutdowns. While it sounds nice, their proposal wouldn’t really do much at all. It would continue funding for two weeks, eliminate congressional travel expenses and halt congressional votes on non-fiscal business. That has the kernels of a few good ideas in it, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough – and it somewhat contradicts itself.

The first element, a two-week extension, is a bad idea.

An automatic extension of funding would remove the pressure from Congress to make a deal, not increase it: It would be like giving Congress an endless supply of dying relatives to get extensions on their term papers (or one extra dead relative, at least). Even if it were a good idea, two weeks isn’t very long, and you might be wondering why they settled on that particular number.

The reason probably lays with most federal employees getting paid every two weeks, which means that’s when the first effects of a shutdown really kick in. It’s a clever way to give Congress an almost 30-day extension without quite being honest about it. It’s like fudging on the definition of “business days.” It’s typical inside-the-Beltway sneakiness, in other words, not some brilliant innovation.

Rather than giving an automatic extension, we should consider eliminating continuing resolutions entirely. That’s one thing the conservative hardliners actually have right: Continuing resolutions are a terrible way to do business. It’s wise to oppose any of them on principle, no matter what they contain, even if they advance your interests. They’re just yet another bookkeeping gimmick employed by politicians to claim victory while avoiding accountability. Maine Democrats have essentially adapted them to a state level with the so-called baseline budgets they’ve passed lately to avoid negotiating with Republicans on the state’s finances.

If you want to get members of Congress to be more serious about negotiating, the solution isn’t to give extensions, but to make shutdowns more punitive – both for them and for the public as a whole.


The next element of the King-Lankford plan, eliminating funding for congressional travel, is a good idea. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Rather than just doing that, they ought to eliminate congressional pay completely during any shutdown. As it stands, the quixotic caucus of hardline conservatives holding the government hostage would still draw a salary during a government shutdown.

Let’s stop paying them.

Here’s another one: Let’s send more employees home during a shutdown, rather than forcing them to work without pay. We can’t do that for everyone – obviously we can’t leave federal prisons unstaffed or the border unpatrolled. Still, if we shut down all the airports to passenger travel, we can send a whole lot of Transportation Security Administration employees and air traffic controllers home. We can leave the airports open for vital shipping and limited passenger travel; not to get your Amazon Prime package or to go on that vacation to Cancun. It’s something that would immediately get the attention of the average member of the public in a way that closing national parks just doesn’t.

It’s clear some federal positions are essential, like prison guards; other positions are murkier. Overall, with clear direction from the White House, agencies could apply that “essential” tag to fewer federal employees, shuttering more agencies and directly affecting more everyday people. While it would be a difficult decision to make, the more that people are affected by a shutdown, the greater the public pressure there would be on members of Congress to make a deal. In that sense, increasing the effect of a shutdown is better at bringing about negotiations than minimizing its effect.

Budget shutdowns are completely pointless political theater. They rarely (if ever) lead to lasting, substantive change. The simple act of a shutdown itself ultimately ends up costing more money in the long run, and usually those taking the government hostage get little, if any, of what they want. Instead, they end up hurting people, but not enough people – or not the right kind of people – so Congress keeps playing these games.

The problem right now is that Washington operates under the dictum that nothing shall jeopardize the sanctity of the American hamburger – but perhaps it ought to. Then we might get some real governing, for a change.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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