Gone, but not done.

Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Government Shutdown: The Optimist's Guide

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.
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The federal government will shut down at the end of the month unless Congress can pass a continuing resolution to keep the doors open. And Congress just left for the weekend with things looking bleak indeed.

Unresolved is funding for efforts to fight the Zika virus, to help Flint, Michigan, deal with its drinking-water crisis, and to aid in flood recovery in Louisiana. Congress is also tussling over the Export-Import Bank (again), over campaign-finance disclosures and about Internet domain oversight. If nothing passes by next Friday, the end of the fiscal year, the government will close.

So why am I not worried, at least not yet? After all, budget maven Stan Collender, for one, has been trying to get everyone to see the danger for weeks -- to be, as he put it, “incensed, infuriated, and irate” about brinkmanship that has brought us to this point.

I believe that a government shutdown (one that lasts beyond a couple days or so) only happens when one party really wants it to. That explains the two long shutdowns in 1995-1996, when Speaker Newt Gingrich incorrectly believed that President Bill Clinton would fold once pressure was applied, and the 2013 attempt spearheaded by Senator Ted Cruz to steamroll Barack Obama on the Affordable Care Act. 

The logic of shutdowns has proved to be pretty simple. Eventually, the government has to reopen. This means that Republicans in the House and Senate are going to have to come to some agreement with the president. Since everyone involved realizes that, neither side has an incentive to hold out beyond the deadline.

Nor is there much uncertainty about who would be damaged if a shutdown comes: Congress, and the Republicans who have the majority there, would likely be blamed, as they have been in the past. This gives the Democrats and Obama some negotiating leverage. 

I'm confident that one of several things will happen. Both sides could reach a deal in time. Or they might, if they can’t quite make the deadline, pass a short-term measure, perhaps just for a few days, to keep the government running until the final deal is reached. Or maybe they will let the government be shuttered over the weekend of Oct. 1 while they continue negotiating, since this wouldn't cause enough damage for anyone to feel threatened.

OK, I'm not 100 percent sure about this. Just because the logic of the situation calls for a deal doesn’t guarantee it will happen. It’s possible that congressional Republicans will find a way to mess things up, even if their leaders aren't seeking an extended shutdown.

Still, the incentives all call for compromise, and dragging it out to the last minute is -- probably -- normal maneuvering and tough bargaining. 

The real risks come later. After all, they're not even working yet on funding for the full fiscal year, just a stopgap measure getting us past the election. So even if they manage to pass the hurdle now, we're just restarting the countdown clock for a December deadline. No, it's no way to run a government. But for now at least a crisis would be forestalled. 

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

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

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