Fall darkness.

Photographer: Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

Abortion Politics Could Shut Down Government

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

Yes, there's a pretty good chance we're going to see a government shutdown this fall.

I agree with budget maven Stan Collender of Forbes that the introduction of abortion politics makes a big difference. It isn't just that the issue is volatile, or that it doesn't lend itself to the compromises the way fights over budget numbers do. 

It's that we now have the ingredient which is both necessary and sufficient for an extended government shutdown: a large group of Republicans who are choosing that course.

Congress is leaving for its August recess with virtually no progress on passing bills needed to finance the government for the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. That in itself wouldn't a concern under normal circumstances. Sure, the parties disagree on serious issues: Republicans want higher military spending and less domestic spending, while Democrats -- with enough of them to filibuster in the Senate and to sustain a presidential veto -- want the opposite. The parties differ on many smaller topics, as well. 

What about the conservatives' demand that Republicans pass their ideal bills rather than cut deals, especially early in the process? That was always going to make things tough. 

But remember that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan pledged that Republicans in both the Senate and the House would be responsible and not allow an impasse this year.

Those aren't just words. Short shutdowns -- one or two days -- have taken place occasionally over the last 30 years. But the only times we had an extended stalemate with government offices closed was in 1995 and 2013, when Republicans deliberately chose a shutdown as a strategy, in the hopes that Democrats would eventually cave in.

The difference now is that some conservatives outside Congress are demanding a government shutdown as a way to force Democrats to agree to defund Planned Parenthood. There's a good chance that these activists, led by Erick Erickson, can get many Republican presidential candidates, both inside and outside of Congress, to join them. They haven't been particularly clear on the mechanism this would take, but presumably they would insist that any temporary funding measure to keep the government running beyond Sept. 30 include a provision ending all funding to Planned Parenthood. Such a rider would either spark a successful filibuster by Senate Democrats or a veto from Barack Obama. No temporary funding, no government operations.

Never mind that government shutdowns invariably end badly for Congress. It's possible the Tea Party radicals just reject that reality. Or they may want to force pragmatic conservatives to break with them -- the better to portray themselves as the True Conservatives, despite not having any actual differences on policy with their more responsible colleagues.

Maybe Republican leaders, realizing they will eventually have to come to some agreement with Obama, will succeed in finding the votes to stop the nonsense before it gets started. All Congress has to do to keep the government operating is to pass short-term spending bills until a final deal is reached.

So far, at least, extended government shutdowns happen on purpose, not by accident. 

  1. Given how little work has been done on appropriations so far, the need for temporary spending measures (a "continuing resolution") seems almost certain.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net