What Can Be Learned from the Logic of an Illogical Shutdown

January 23, 2018
by Congressman Bruce Westerman (AR-04)

September 30 is an important date in our nation’s capital.  It’s the end of the fiscal year for the federal government and about 30% of Uncle Sam’s programs depend on new congressional discretionary appropriations each year to remain operational.  The list includes Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Interior and other departments that are funded through 12 House originated appropriations bills. The other 70% of federal spending is contained in massive mandatory spending programs:   Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, over 80 social welfare programs, and interest on the debt; all of which have uninterrupted funding and continue to operate during a government shutdown.

The brokenness of the funding process in Congress is evident in the fact that in the last five years, zero of 60 appropriation bills have been signed into law by the September 30 deadline and only five out of 120 in the last 10 years.  But the problem is not currently in the House, as is evident in the fact that all twelve appropriations were passed out of the House and sent to the Senate before the September 2017 deadline.  During the first government shutdown since 2013, the Senate had yet to take-up a single appropriation bill for consideration even though it was over three and one half months past the funding deadline.  And it’s not just appropriations bills.  It’s also hundreds of policy bills such as the authorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that passed the House November 2, 2017 and never saw debate in the Senate although 9 million low-income children across the country depend on this program for health insurance.

How can this be? Cloture is to blame and the Senate controls cloture.  Senate cloture rules to protect the minority essentially establish the majority threshold at 60% since 60 votes out of 100 are required to bring a bill to the floor in the Senate.  The roots of cloture lie in the same reasoning as our unique electoral college that gives a voice to the minority.  Cloture when used responsibly promotes bipartisan actions and stops the majority from forcing damaging policy onto the minority.  When used recklessly, as was the case in the recent shutdown, cloture blocks non-controversial legislation for purely political purposes, derails the process, ascribes power to only those in leadership, and can be devastating to the country.  A minority party that uses cloture to block otherwise non-controversial legislation does so in the hopes of obtaining leverage to push other policy or negotiate back room deals involving only a few members of leadership instead of a constitutional republic where all of America’s elected Representatives’ and Senators’ voices are heard. When cloture abuse goes too far it ends at its worst in a shutdown and at its best we get things like massive, last minute, budget busting, take-it-or-leave-it omnibus bills that often include policy riders and cover a wide range of issues; many of which could not pass muster on their own.

America’s take away from the recent shutdown is twofold.  First, cloture abuse has been exposed and Senators should be held accountable for hiding behind it.  Second, the federal government budgeting and funding processes need work and as long as Senators abuse cloture and fail to take-up legislation in regular order in an open and transparent process our nation’s debt, spending, defense, and general functioning will suffer.

U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs has represented the Fourth District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2015. He serves on the House Budget, Natural Resources, and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees.