Get ready. We're headed for a government shutdown, quite possibly a long one, probably beginning on Oct. 1.
Nothing is ever certain, and it takes very little for Congress to avoid a shutdown — just a short bill extending funding after the annual spending bills expire at the end of September. But House Republicans are far too dysfunctional to produce anything like that. Right now they can't even manage to pass their own version of spending bills, let alone something that the Democratic majority in the Senate would pass and President Joe Biden would sign.
Extended government shutdowns — longer than a long weekend — don't happen by accident or because good-faith negotiations don't get done by the deadline. Extended government shutdowns only happen when the group with the votes or the leverage to make it happen want a shutdown.
Right now, the more extreme conservatives among House Republican are threatening a shutdown if they don't get their way. It's true that a "clean" spending extension bill that would keep the government running while negotiations continue would almost certainly pass the House and easily pass the Senate. For that matter, the bipartisan annual spending bills that the Senate is passing would also almost certainly pass in the House. But while the extremists — members of the House Freedom Caucus and others — don't have the votes, they do have the leverage. They're threatening to oust Kevin McCarthy from his position as speaker if he brings those bills to the House floor. McCarthy believes they're serious and is willing to go to great lengths to appease them, whatever the costs to his party and the nation.
That's where McCarthy's announcement of the impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden comes in. It's going nowhere but could easily rally Democrats around Biden while making things tough for House Republicans in competitive districts. Appeasing the hard-liners means championing deep spending cuts for popular government programs even though the final spending bills will almost certainly be the bipartisan Senate versions.
And it means a shutdown.
How long? That's difficult to predict. There have only been three extended government shutdowns in U.S. history. The first, in 1995, was 21 days and was sparked by Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich's mistaken belief that President Bill Clinton would fold if pushed and was actually a two-party sequence, with a five-day November shutdown followed by 21 more days in December. A 2013 shutdown lasted 16 days, and a third started in December 2018 and dragged into January 2019, for an epic 35 days. Unlike the threat of a government default brought on by debt limit crises, the damage from shutdowns, both in terms of economic harm and personal inconvenience, starts small and builds slowly over time. It's one thing for tourists to lose out on trips to national parks or federally-run museums. It's another when backlogs start piling up for the many things that need government action to proceed, from environmental impact statements to patents to non-essential— but still important— court cases.
Over time, constituents put pressure on their representatives to get something done — and over time, polling usually makes it clear which party is suffering more, which is usually the party that started the shutdown in the first place. That has been the Republicans in each of the three previous extended shutdowns. Senate Democrats were responsible for a short three-day shutdown in 2018, with two of those being weekend days before they realized it was futile and caved.
McCarthy is trying to come up with a temporary extension that's loaded with enough goodies that the Freedom Caucus and its allies will support, while also trying to cajole moderate Republicans into voting for it. Given the thin GOP margin in the House, he'll need almost unanimous support from Republicans for a bill that no Democrats will vote for. But even if he manages to get that done in the two-plus weeks remaining it will be dead on arrival in the Senate. That means that to keep the government running McCarthy would have to accept the Senate's terms, cross his far-right flank, and risk his job.
The problem is that the extremist faction of House Republicans isn't looking for a better deal. They're going to oppose any deal that Biden agrees to (and perhaps even any deal that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell supports). Meanwhile, if the first rule of shutdowns is that they only happen when one side wants it, the second rule is that shutdown showdowns always end with something supported by the speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader, and the president. When that happens — when McCarthy supports a bill that passes the Democratic-majority Senate and is signed by Biden — McCarthy (or his successor, for that matter) will be attacked as a sell-out who surrendered while on the brink of victory.
The good news is the basic outlines of a deal are easy to see. Biden and both parties in both chambers already agreed to the basic spending levels back in June when they passed the debt limit increase. The Senate is therefore moving ahead with bipartisan bills enacting that deal and should easily exceed the 60 votes needed to defeat filibusters and pass their legislation. But no one can force the House to go along, and they don't seem anywhere close to it right now, or have any obvious way of getting from here to there without first inflicting a lot of pain.