So, we’ve just narrowly averted — do we avert things in any other way? — we’ve just narrowly averted yet another government shutdown. I can’t help but feel that the magic is gone, and that, whatever horror a shutdown threat once held, it’s just not there anymore. Like the filibuster, it has become yet another scripted Washington routine. Sordid, to be sure, but so is everything else.
This is unfortunate for several reasons, and the boy-who-cried-wolf scenario is high on the list. Threaten often enough, and when it’s real, no one will be prepared for it. But there’s another consideration here, one not so much making the headlines: Shutdown threats are wasteful.
When government agencies don’t operate on a regular, dependable, yearly budget, they have no other choice but to improvise. They delay purchasing orders. They shelve time-sensitive plans; these then become useless, even though possibly a lot of effort went into making them. Agencies find long-term planning difficult, even if, as happens in many of them, long-term planning is substantially all that they do. To make up for it, they binge when they get the chance, because they know it might not come again. Spending might not go down — and it isn’t — but it does get a whole lot sloppier.
Anecdotally, I can say that these things happen whether or not the government actually does shut down. The damage happens when spending cycles are irregular, when planning windows have to be cut from a year to a couple of weeks, when the next window is longer, and then shorter again, and then the money’s gone, and then it’s back.
One big reason why we have yearly budgets is to avoid these very inefficiencies — as Republican president and former businessman Warren Harding understood when he initiated the annual budgeting process in 1921. How good is it to have an annual budget, rather than not have one? It’s hard to say, but Harding was able to cut government spending in half in two years.
Ask a Republican where to cut the federal budget, and he will likely say foreign aid. Ask for something else, and he’ll say waste. Well then. Look no further.
(Disclosure: My husband works for NASA, a federal agency, although it would not have been affected by recent events, as its funding had already been passed in a separate bill.)