Rice University's Robert M. Stein said that factions in the House, including growing divides between GOP members, increase the probability of a government shutdown this fall.

Rice University's Robert M. Stein said that factions in the House, including growing divides between GOP members, increase the probability of a government shutdown this fall. gguy44 / Getty Images

Come again? Political scientist sees shutdown as 'likely'— and feds need to get ready

With days left until funding for the federal government expires, some political experts foresee not only a shutdown, but possibly a long one, with an interruption in pay likely 

Concerns about a federal government shutdown are creeping into everyday conversation across agencies, as this last week of funding for agency operations finds the Republican-led House of Representatives still split on next steps and possibly unable to pass a necessary continuing resolution or spending bill.

What might a worsening crisis and shutdown mean for federal employees? 

Thanks to a 2019 law, the Government Employee Fair Treatment Act, soon after a shutdown ends feds are guaranteed to receive any missed pay and leave they should have accrued. Prior to passage of that law, Congress had to vote to approve such retroactive compensation. Now the correction is made automatically. 

Yet, if there is a shutdown, and if it lasts more than a week or two — as some expert observers increasingly expect it might — hundreds of thousands of feds could go unpaid. In the several weeks-long 2018-2019 shutdown, over three-quarters of a million furloughed suffered through just that. 

Robert M. Stein, a political scientist at Rice University, is one of those pessimistic observers. He thinks that, on balance, a shutdown is likely — whether now or in a month or so, if a temporary CR is passed first. And that if a shutdown does happen, it is likely to be lengthy. 

“This year’s possible shutdown scenario is a lot more complicated than that one back in 2018 and 2019,” Stein told Government Executive. “What we have here is a majority that is itself divided. On the one side, you have the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is struggling to keep his party together. On the other, you have the Freedom Caucus — including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and others — who actually have totally disparate agendas, but who agree on one thing: contrary to Speaker McCarthy, they think it would just be great to shut the government down. 

“In the past, and specifically in the crisis that led to the last shutdown, it was simple. It was one team versus the other team, one party against the other,” he continued. “Not so now. The GOP is split. Complicating things even more, each week McCarthy’s speakership is in greater jeopardy—and he can’t satisfy all sides of his own party on a shutdown option or the issues driving it, making an actual shutdown even more likely.” 

Just what are those “issues” that are pushing Republican lawmakers toward a worsening split and a likelier shutdown? Stein’s list of leading GOP dilemmas includes the entrees on the Freedom Caucus’s menu: whether to press for federal abortion ban legislation, tightened border and immigration controls, pushing against the federal part of a “whole woke attitude,” particularly in the military, among others. 

Most prominently right now, there is a roiling internal GOP debate on whether to press for impeachment of President Biden across several fronts, including his son’s murky business dealings — with even the more moderate House R's saying evidence connecting the president to any of it is lacking. Disagreement on each of these fronts is driving a wedge between House Republicans, hampering any consensus needed to pass spending legislation and stop a shutdown. 

Bottom line: With this much internal division in the House — and the divided GOP itself hanging by a mere four-vote majority — it’s very hard to function. 

“What if just one of your members gets sick — or tries to avoid this vote? You’re down to just three,” Stein adds. “McCarthy can’t manage this.” 

So, what does Stein predict on the shutdown threat in the immediate future, and on into the coming months? “All I can imagine right now, soon, is McCarthy goes for a CR, which the Freedom Caucus won’t vote for, and so then the House Speaker crosses the aisle and tries to put together votes to avoid shutting down government. Here, I think he fails on this, with government shutting down. 

“Then he’s going to lose his speakership,” he added. “And maybe we even see a prolonged shutdown in government while there is no leadership in the House. It’s a pretty dire possibility, but I wouldn’t rule it out. 

“And by the way, shutting down government now could also send the economy into a tailspin,” Stein noted, in case we lost sight of the wider damage to our economic well-being that an interruption in government operations might represent."

Again, even if a shutdown occurs, and a sizable number of government employees are furloughed — in the last one, over 800,000 out of 2.2 million were— the law requires feds to be made whole on their salary and leave benefits on the other side of the crisis.