Government shutdowns are starting to become almost natural in Washington: the seasons change, and fiscal hardliners in the House of Representatives find a new way to endanger the federal government’s operations.
In the spring, government doors from DC to the Grand Canyon National Park were hours away from closing because of a funding dispute, which was averted with an agreement to cut $38 billion from the federal budget for the rest of the fiscal year. In the summer, the US Treasury came perilously close to hitting the debt-limit before reaching an agreement that called for $2.4 trillion in cuts and a super-committee on deficit reduction.
Over the past several weeks, it seemed like the autumnal shutdown would be over another funding resolution that would also give extra money to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the crisis was averted in a deal struck last night that was unlike any yet this year—in this case, the Democrats actually stood their ground and (mostly) won.
So what happened? In short: the April deal extended government funding through the end of the fiscal year, which is Friday. Congress has not yet passed the twelve appropriations bills needed to fund the government for another fiscal year, in large part due to uncertainty about what the super-committee might decide on cuts, and so both parties quietly agreed to pass a “continuing resolution” that would provide money for the government until November.
This continuing resolution wasn’t supposed to be controversial, but Hurricane Irene changed all of that. FEMA spent a lot of extra money to respond to the destruction that stretched across much of the eastern seaboard, and began informing Congress that it could run out of money before the end of the fiscal year—meaning that it would need excess funds.
Suddenly, the House Republican leadership made a radical demand: any extra disaster funding for FEMA would have to be offset by additional cuts elsewhere. Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader and close ally of Tea Partiers in the House, led this charge. As I noted on Friday, this was a remarkable line to draw—Republicans were proudly returning to the mindset that federal disaster response was something of a boondoggle, a frame of thinking that led pretty directly to the atrocious response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (This was underscored by the fact that none other than Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown endorsed the Republican position.)
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid refused to back down, and repeatedly said disaster funding should always be passed with no strings attached. Reid said plainly that if the House Republicans didn’t acquiesce, there would be a shutdown and it would be their fault. “I’m not that sure [there won’t be a shutdown], because the Tea Party-driven House of Representatives has been so unreasonable in the past. I don’t know why they should suddenly be reasonable,” Reid said.