As any high school civics student should be able to explain, the U.S. Congress is required to pass a budget for operating the federal government each year. Except it doesn’t. Congress last passed a full and timely operating budget 26 years ago, in 1997.
I think most families should operate with an annual and monthly budget. That any entity would spend 30% more than its revenues – and do so repeatedly without a budget – is idiocy. It is malpractice. No business could survive with such an irresponsible spending approach.
Then why would Congress essentially schedule these shutdown “battles” each fall? Because ignoring its responsibility to pass a budget, then threatening a shutdown, is a useful political tool. When you hear a Washington politician droning on about how the horrible officials on the other side are intent on bringing the country to a fiscal halt, remember this: government shutdowns (actual and threatened) exist because members of Congress want them. This isn’t about evil democrats or republicans. It is about reckless officials in both parties who would rather prioritize political gains over their fundamental responsibilities as stewards of $6 trillion in taxpayer money each year.
Do not be persuaded or fooled by a politician who claims that shutdowns are a useful tool to reduce government waste. That is a croc. Shutting down the government doesn’t change the deficit by a single penny, especially when compared to the potential deficit that might result from a functioning budgeting system. All spending is ultimately approved and disbursed retroactively, including the Congressional pay of members who brag about refusing their pay in the event of a shut down. They don’t refuse it; they defer it.
The entire spectacle of government shutdowns in not rooted in law, but rather a legal interpretation by the U.S. Attorney General in 1980. For more than 200 years, the U.S. government avoided shutdowns, despite plenty of years when Congress failed to pass either a budget or a continuing resolution that simply amended and extended the previous year’s appropriations. In 1980, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti decreed that the 1884 Antideficiency Act required federal agencies to shut down during a funding gap. The decision was a political one, aimed at pressuring the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to back off its aggressive corporate investigations. Congress used Civiletti’s ruling to shut down the FTC for a single day.
It seems to me that if an Attorney General’s (obviously politically) motivated decision can create the environment in which federal government shutdowns can exist, another Attorney General decision could return the country to the initial 204 years of status quo. The reason you don’t hear that discussed is no secret: Washington loves shutdowns.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.