Government Shutdown Still Possible

For all the “cleaning the barn” talk about the two-year “budget deal” that cleared the Senate in the wee hours this morning, it does not actually resolve all the troublesome spending issues or eliminate the possibility of conservative mischief. As David Dayen notes at the Prospect, while the deal set overall spending levels, is does not obviate the need for actual appropriations bills.

That means we’re not finished with opportunities for hostage-taking, as conservatives can still hijack the budget process to earn long-sought victories. Attached to all of the existing appropriations bills are riders unrelated to the budget, affecting everything from social to environmental to financial regulatory policy.

In September, Public Citizen and hundreds of other organizations outlined just a sample of those riders. For example, the appropriations bills on offer would cancel all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. They would prevent enforcement of a proposed Labor Department regulation to mandate investment advisers to operate in their clients’ best interest. They would cancel the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules. They would stop environmental regulations on clean water, endangered species, and air-quality standards for ozone, and block an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule on toxic silica dust in the workplace. They would exempt flavored cigarettes currently on the market from regulation. They would halt the Securities and Exchange Commission from completing rules requiring publicly traded companies to disclose political spending. They would block rules limiting the hours long-haul truckers can spend on the road without rest. And they would change hundreds of other rules, regulations, and funding priorities….

The White House, in its statement on the budget deal, said that it would work with Congress “to enact responsible, full-year FY 2016 appropriations—without ideological riders—based on this agreement.” But there is nothing in the deal that prevents Congress from sending appropriations with these riders and daring the president to veto them. Everybody, therefore, has the same choices in front of them that existed before John Boehner announced his resignation.

Well, not all the same choices are available, since the use of the debt limit to extort policy changes is indeed off the table. But David’s right: the specter of a government shutdown over conservative demands to “defund” Planned Parenthood hasn’t been defused, and if as expected there’s another omnibus appropriations bill covering multiple federal agencies it will represent quite the hostage for such demands.

You can make the argument that the dynamics which made the budget deal possible–you know, the bipartisan desire to get to the elections without fresh crises in Congress–will inevitably prevent a big collision over appropriations, much less a shutdown. But keep in mind the only way out of an impasse will be the same Hastert-Rule-violating coalition of House Democrats and a minority of Republicans, and one of the prices Paul Ryan paid for that spanking new gavel he wields was a pledge to take the Hastert Rule more seriously.

So if you are a political writer or a federal employee, you might want to make your holiday plans with some contingency clauses.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.