America’s Newest Staple: Government Shutdowns
The public trash cans? Unemptied. The airport security lines? Unending. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees? Unpaid.
These were the images that came out of the record 35-day government shutdown from this past January. While U.S. citizens have suffered increasingly regular shutdowns over the past 30 years, the sheer length and political chaos of this shutdown left it unrivalled in memorability, despite it being only a partial shutdown. Few thought that the initial partisan dispute over allocating $5.7 billion to fund President Donald Trump’s southern border wall would lead to the subsequent political gridlock. And even fewer could predict the abrupt end where Trump announced a three week long stopgap funding measure that reopened the government and led to the eventual declaration of a national emergency. Everything about the shutdown was shocking in its scale. Even for Americans, who have experienced more than a little hyper-partisanship in the Trump era, the shutdown demonstrated just how inefficient and ineffective our government has become.
But to the international community, the shutdown was even more inconceivable as international news outlets responded to the event with increasing disbelief, some governments, like China’s, even held up the event as proof that democracy was a failure. And while shutdowns have become commonplace for Americans, government shutdowns just don’t exist outside the U.S.
Shutdowns have not always been the norm in America. In fact, government shutdowns as we know them have only existed since 1980, when former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti released a statement during a legal debate over whether federal agencies could legally continue employing workers if they hadn’t received new appropriations. Civiletti resolved this debate by stating that during periods of “lapsed appropriations” that “no funds may be expended except as necessary to bring about the orderly termination of an agency’s functions.” At the time, this measure, which was instantly used in a brief government shutdown days after Civiletti issued his opinion, was thought to be a minor interpretation on, in Civiletti’s words, “a fairly narrow subject.” However, in the years since, the process of shutdowns has been highly politicized, becoming an explosive political weapon for each party to use in attempts to force the other’s hand.
Most democracies in the world function differently from the U.S. in ways that drastically reduce the likelihood of government shutdowns. Many democratic governments are parliamentary systems. Unlike the American model, most parliamentary systems require a simple majority—only 51% of a legislative body—to pass budgetary measures as opposed to the U.S., for which a supermajority of 60% or above is needed to pass budgets. Secondly, a failure to agree on a budget in parliamentary democracies simply implies the dissolution of the current parliament and new elections, which incentivizes most governments to avoid impasses for their own political survival. A failure to agree on the budget notably occurred in Australia in 1975, where a similar shutdown-esque event was ultimately resolved by the dissolution of the legislature. Australia hasn’t had a budget impasse since.
However, even in democracies with more presidential systems like the U.S., the shutdown problem remains nonexistent. In France, which has a semi-presidential system, their Constitution dictates that the equivalent of the executive branch can simply “make available by decree the funds needed to make commitments already voted for” and the French president can dissolve the National Assembly if need be.
But this isn’t to say that there haven’t been budget lapses in other countries.Belgium famously went 589 days without a government from 2010 to 2011, as the varying political parties failed to form a ruling coalition, leading to the inability to appoint a prime minister and cabinet. However, even with this bizarre situation, Belgian government services continued to function normally and a caretaker government utilized the previous government’s budget. Similarly, in 2008, Brazil started the year with no budget but continued to nonetheless function normally under the previous government’s budget. In most other democracies, if new budgetary measures are not passed, funding just remains at current levels instead of ceasing entirely. This method is effectively how the U.S. operated before Civiletti’s 1980 opinion.
As evidently displayed by four month long delays over coalition formation in Germany in 2018 and Sweden in 2019, the hyperpolarization currently trending in the United States isn’t just an American phenomenon. The main difference between the U.S. and other nations isn’t that hyper-partisanship doesn’t exist, but instead is that gridlock isn’t able to shutter parts of an entire government. In both Sweden and Germany, negotiations finally broke through, and opposing parties were able to compromise to form ruling coalitions even without the external pressure of jobless federal employees, grounded flights, and frozen federal services. Compare this situation to the U.S., where bipartisan “coalitions,” like the 2013 “Gang of Eight” that introduced immigration reforms in the Senate, have largely disappeared from view. This new reality is indicative of the burgeoning hyperpolarization that has beget the stereotypical dysfunction that most Americans associate with Washington.
Whether due to structural differences or political self-interest, other countries simply do not have government shutdowns in the way that the U.S. does. Authoritarian nations exploit this weakness of democracy, using shutdowns as evidence to portray democratic systems as ineffective. With each passing shutdown becoming more extreme than the last, and gridlock forcing Congress into a persistent legislative standstill, the U.S. is doing little to combat this image of instability.