Congress gets the shutdown jitters

Congress gets the shutdown jitters

The government shutdown of 1995 seems like a long time ago, but many congressional Republicans still seem to be suffering post traumatic stress over the debacle. While all else is uncertain going into the closing weeks of fiscal 1999, Republicans are making one thing clear: THERE WILL BE NO GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN.

Again this year, GOP leaders are taking pains to assure everyone that they will not allow an appropriations lapse. It used to be that having a bill or two lapse, causing a small shutdown, was not a big deal. Then came 1995, when the public blamed Republicans for closing down national parks and monuments. Republicans still are not sure why they got blamed for the shutdown.

"In 1995, there was an unfair assessment that we caused it," said a former House Republican aide who was in the middle of the 1995 mess. "Why is it that the people who want to spend less are blamed for closing down the government?"

Still, the mere threat of a shutdown causes great anxiety among Republicans. "There are many folks around here who are defined by that episode," said an aide to a House Republican conservative. "Their thinking has never been the same. It was our sense that we got our tail whipped so bad."

Others agreed. "The perception is that the president will blame a Republican Congress if the government shuts down, and that the blame will stick is a given," said another House GOP aide.

Never again, shell-shocked Republicans declare. First, they have tried over and over again to find a way to pass legislation creating an automatic continuing resolution that would go into effect if any funding lapsed. Appropriators and the Clinton administration hate the idea, so it has remained bottled up. Republicans are left assuring everybody that they will pass as many continuing resolutions as are needed to keep even the smallest national monument open.

"You don't want to get in a position of suspending government services," said a House Republican leadership aide, who conceded that, since the shutdown, Republicans "are not as aggressive in making these bold statements."

Instead, Republicans are in the position of passing as many appropriations bills as possible, in an effort to demonstrate that they can get their business done. "This is not a terribly philosophically driven Congress," one Republican recently commented.

But some Republicans worry that constant fretting over the mere possibility of a government shutdown leaves Republicans in a weakened position. The administration uses the shutdown stick "to a great effect," said a House GOP aide. "We shiver over it."

Another Republican worried that keeping the government open is not a great Republican slogan heading into tough talks with the president. "That's hardly a rallying cry," he said.

Once again, Congress is heading toward having to pass a huge omnibus spending bill. But Congress' inability to get funding bills done on time may not be the only reason for such a debacle.

Legislators once again are linking various issues in separate funding measures, making it necessary to link the bills. For example, for the past few years, Republicans have linked such issues as the amount of money the United States owes to the United Nations, an issue in the Commerce-Justice-State funding measure, to funding and language dealing with international family planning groups, an issue in the Foreign Operations bill. As long as those two issues are linked, the bills may have to be linked. "The big bills don't get done because politicians link the issues," said one GOP aide.

Another budget writer suggested that the process would be simpler if everyone let each issue fall or rise on its own merits. Why not simply pass one of the bills, with the understanding that the other issue will be taken care of in its own bill? That's a more fundamental problem.

Discussing the general negotiating climate on Capitol Hill, the budgeteer commented, "Nobody trusts anybody." Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee, who are now getting ready to embrace the concept of forward funding, warned of its evils just a few months ago.

Many Republicans are arguing that the way to solve the current appropriations mess is to use FY2001 money to fund programs in this year's funding bills. Republicans and the Clinton administration used the same device last year, and an October analysis of last year's omnibus funding bill by the Senate GOP Budget Committee staff warned that as much as $9 billion in the Labor-HHS measure was being forward-funded. Of that total, $6.1 billion was used for the Title I compensatory education program.

It is easy to forward-fund education programs, since it makes the funding correspond to the school year. But the October analysis also warned that this year's Labor-HHS bill would have to absorb the $6.1 billion hit. Instead, budgeteers appear prepared to simply forward-fund another huge chunk of the Labor- HHS bill. Which of course, means that next year ... You get the picture.