A Tool for Addressing the Government Shutdown Problem and Promoting Smaller Government

A recent article by Ramesh Ponnuru argues for solving the government shutdown problem by adopting a proposal by Senator Rob Portman. According to Ponnuru:

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio has been trying for years to enact such a law. During the last shutdown, in 2013, he got a floor vote on an amendment for an “automatic continuing resolution.” If no appropriations bill were signed into law, the affected programs would keep running at their existing spending levels for the next 120 days. If no bill had passed by then, spending would be cut by 1 percent. Another 1 percent cut would be made every 90 days after that.

I was happy to see Portman’s proposal. John McGinnis and I have been arguing for a similar proposal for many years. We initially came up with the idea here in 1999, and then published a piece in the Wall Street Journal in 2014.  We noted that “the GOP almost always bears the blame for a shutdown, because the smaller-government message of Republicans is easily portrayed as aiming to deprive the public of government services.” To change that government shutdown dynamic, we argued that Congress should change the law:

so that the public suffers less inconvenience when the political parties cannot agree on spending levels. In case of a government shutdown, the government would continue to spend on discretionary programs at a level close to the amount authorized by the previous year’s budget. A reasonable default target might be 95%.

Such a law could be a political game-changer. The public would be less likely to suffer serious inconvenience with spending at this default target, and a 5% solution would strengthen the leverage of the party favoring less spending, i.e., the GOP. A 5% cut would in any event be closer to what Republicans ultimately want. They could hold out for a deal preferable to the default, since there would be very low costs imposed on the public in the interim.

I believe that such a change in the law could have an enormous effect on current politics and the amount of spending. Unsurprisingly, Ponnuru reports that Portman’s “amendment was defeated on a nearly party-line vote, with Portman’s fellow Republicans supportive and the Democrats opposed.”

Ponnuru, however, has a criticism of Portman’s (and implicitly our) recommendation. He writes that under Portman’s proposal, “the most conservative Republicans would have an incentive to keep appropriations bills from passing on time so that they could see the automatic cuts happen.”

There is something to this point. People who favor smaller government might prefer that no appropriation bill pass rather than passing a new one. Of course, that could be pointed out and those legislators would have to defend themselves. Still, if one wanted to eliminate this incentive, one could adopt, as Ponnuru suggests, a law that “keeps spending flat” if there is no appropriation passed, or even “keeps it growing at the average pace of the previous few years.”

That would be an improvement over the existing law. But while it would be good to address the government shutdown problem alone, it would be better to do so in a way that promotes less spending. The existing system has been promoting bigger government. And other features, such as rational ignorance, also promote bigger government. A tool in favor of smaller government is just what is needed.