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Congress seeks new ways to prevent shutdowns from happening

Posted at 6:55 AM, Jan 30, 2019

As the country recovers from the longest government shutdown in United States history, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike are saying they don't want a shutdown to happen again. Some are even pushing legislative proposals aimed at preventing the gears of government from grinding to a halt in the future.

The record-breaking shutdown came to an end last week when President Donald Trump signed a spending bill to temporarily reopen government while congressional negotiators attempt to find a deal on border security. But the government could shut down again as early as mid-February when the stopgap funding bill is set to expire.

It's not yet clear if lawmakers can come to an agreement to avert a shutdown in a few weeks, but there is bipartisan agreement in Congress that government shutdowns shouldn't just keep happening. And lawmakers in both the House and Senate are taking the opportunity to push proposals that -- if they were ever to be enacted -- could stave off future shutdowns or create more incentives for Congress and the White House to steer clear of them.

A series of proposals that rely on stopgap spending bills -- with penalties attached

The threat of a shutdown is currently a deterrent that's supposed to encourage lawmakers to work together to pass needed, annual spending bills on time to fund the federal government.

Some of the proposals that have been introduced in Congress to avert shutdowns would automatically renew funding at existing levels through the implementation of stopgap spending legislation, but would pair that with measures intended to bring lawmakers to the table to still negotiate full-year spending bills even if a stopgap bill went into effect.

For example, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has a bill called the "End Government Shutdowns Act" that would initially maintain current funding levels, but includes provisions to incentivize Congress not to default to stopgap legislation.

After 120 days, the funding level would be cut by 1%. That amount would be further cut by 1% after an additional 90 days. And that process would keep repeating "until Congress does its job and completes the annual appropriations process," according to a release from the senator's office.

Another proposal to stave off shutdowns comes from Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia who has introduced legislation called the "Stop STUPIDITY Act" -- an acronym that stands for Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In The Coming Years.

In the event of a funding lapse, the bill would prevent a shutdown by automatically maintaining existing funding levels and adjusting them upward to keep pace with inflation. But the legislation would not provide funding for the Executive Office of the President and the legislative branch, a penalty intended to ensure that Congress and the White House would have to come to an agreement to end any kind of spending standoff.

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan, who's working on his own proposal, noted that the challenge is to find a way to prevent future shutdowns but still keep some kind of deterrent in place to encourage lawmakers to work together to pass full-year spending bills.

"We want to essentially de-weaponize shutdowns, but the trick and the thing that we're working through is, how do we do that in a way that still provides some clear and very strong incentives to get the work done and not just use this as an easy default," Kildee told CNN.

Kildee, who met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about his proposal on Friday, hasn't publicly released the details of his bill.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the House Democratic caucus chair, said at a news conference on Tuesday that House Democratic leadership has "consistently taken the position that there should be no more reckless shutdowns where we hold the American people hostage and we're willing to consider a variety of different legislative proposals that have been made to ensure that's a reality."

A group of House freshmen Democrats -- led by Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Colin Allred of Texas -- unveiled a bill Tuesday called the Shutdown to End All Shutdowns Act.

It would prevent shutdowns by maintaining existing funding levels in the event of a failure to enact spending legislation.

It would also impose a series of penalties on lawmakers and the President until a spending agreement could be reached so that the government did not need to default to a stopgap bill.

Those penalties would include suspending pay for members of Congress and barring the Executive Branch and the Cabinet from using federal funds with some limited exceptions such as for national security reasons.

Slotkin expressed optimism at a news conference that the legislation will advance.

"We think there's real momentum at this moment. I think there are, you've probably seen a number of bills that are floating around that people are proposing both on the House and the Senate side. As far as I'm concerned and most of us, that's a good thing, right? That is a solvable problem if we've got different versions of the same bill that ends shutdowns," she said.

Slotkin said she does not expect that the legislation will be included as part of the effort to negotiate an agreement to avert a shutdown ahead of February 15, however.

"I don't think anyone is under any illusions that this will play into the February 15 deadline, although I hope given the momentum, it's soon after," she said.

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers also moved to introduce legislation on Tuesday that wouldn't eliminate the possibility of shutdowns altogether, but could create more urgency for lawmakers and the President to avoid them.

The bill -- the Solidarity in Salary Act of 2019 -- would withhold pay from the President, vice president and congressional lawmakers when a shutdown occurs.

Earlier on Tuesday, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy indicated that he would be open to supporting legislation that would deny pay to lawmakers during a shutdown.

"I like the legislation that if we do not fund government, members don't get paid. I think that ends the whole question," he said.

Some lawmakers warn stopgap bills would undermine the power of Congress to set spending

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday he has reservations about some of the proposals being floated to prevent future shutdowns.

On the idea of defaulting to stopgap funding measures that over time see a decrease in funding levels, for example, Hoyer argued that approach undermines Congress' obligation to pass bills on time.

"I'm personally reticent about automatic bills that in effect take Congress out of having to make decisions," he said.

One idea, he said, that could potentially have an effect is to make it illegal for federal employees to work without pay.

"I think asking people to work for free is un-American. And I think if we said that nobody had to work if the government was shutdown for more than seven days including holidays and Saturdays and Sunday, I think that would be quite a wake-up call for people," he said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey of New York similarly expressed concern over stopgap temporary funding bills sometimes known as continuing resolutions or CRs.

"While well intentioned, automatic continuing resolutions would weaken Congress' power of the purse, shift power to the President, and make it much harder to fund investments important to working families. Discretionary spending should be subject to annual review by Congress, not indefinite autopilot," she said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the co-chair of the congressional progressive caucus, also said she had "some concerns" with the use of continuing resolutions.

"I would see some concerns with automatic CR's just in terms with what they lock in, I think we have to be careful," she said.

"I know there's an intent to try to prevent government shutdowns, but we have to be careful about how we do that and not lock in something that's even worse or incentives for us never to come to new budgets on things or to even recognize a new majority," she said.