US Park Police officer watches at left as a National Park Service employee posts a sign on a barricade closing access to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on Oct. 1, 2013
Carolyn Kaster // AP File

Why some on the left aren’t sold on new anti-shutdown legislation

Updated

Donald Trump may be ready to shut the government down again in a couple of weeks, but the appetite on Capitol Hill for a replay is non-existent. In fact, a variety of lawmakers have begun pushing legislation that would alter the appropriations process in such a way as to make shutdowns impossible.

In fact, in a bit of a surprise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week suggested he’s willing to consider legislation along these lines.

So, the White House’s threats notwithstanding, is this an area ripe for bipartisan progress? Maybe, but some on the left have some notable concerns.

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill rush to embrace bills to prevent future government shutdowns, the liberal caucus in the House sounded a dissonant note, saying Tuesday they fear unintended consequences.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus said it is not yet opposing the legislation, but that its members are worried that Congress could end up locking in old spending levels and thus shortchanging liberal policy priorities, in an effort to prevent future shutdowns.

“I’m supportive of the intent of avoiding government shutdowns, I just think we need to be careful about the mechanisms,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, one of the co-chairs for the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

On the surface, this may seem counter-intuitive. The politics of government shutdowns can be complex, but as the recent five-week fiasco demonstrated, there are some broad truths, including an obvious observation: Republicans are far more comfortable using shutdowns as a tactic than Democrats.

So why would the Congressional Progressive Caucus be concerned about legislation to prevent future crises? Because of the way in which the appropriations process works.

Under the current system, Congress approves a series of appropriations bills that fund government functions. When the bills don’t pass, one of two things happen: either lawmakers approve stopgap measures (called “continuing resolutions”) to keep everything on track, or there’s a shutdown.

Each of the various proposals to prevent future shutdowns are based on roughly the same model: if federal policymakers fail to pass appropriations bills and fail to pass continuing resolutions, an automatic process would kick in automatically, keeping existing funding levels in place to maintain functioning departments and agencies.

At face value, that probably sounds like a sensible solution. In fact, I offered some praise for just such an idea last week. But the Congressional Progressive Caucus raises a fair point about the ways in which conservatives could exploit such a policy.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published a brief report on this yesterday, warning Congress not to be too hasty when it comes to preventing shutdowns.

While design changes to an automatic CR might moderate some of these problems, the biggest problems would remain. An automatic CR would make it more difficult to revise discretionary funding levels each year to respond to pressing national needs and would diminish Congress’ role in establishing national priorities.

Shutdowns cause substantial damage. But as painful as shutdowns are, automatic CRs could cause the longer-term unraveling of the annual appropriations process and inflict damage that, while less dramatic than a shutdown, could have more significant long-term negative consequences. If automatic CRs become the norm for significant parts of the federal government, funding is likely to become less adequate and less efficiently allocated over time.

Something to keep in mind as the debate proceeds.

Government Shutdowns and Government Spending

Why some on the left aren't sold on new anti-shutdown legislation

Updated