A Functioning Democracy Focuses on Funding Priorities, Not Whether to Defund the Government

September 30, 2021
Government shutdown cartoonSteve Breen/Wikimedia Commons
Andrew Rosenberg
Director, Center for Science and Democracy

It has become a nearly annual ritual for Congress to miss its deadline for completing the appropriations bills that allocate funds to federal agencies, programs, states, and local government. Given that allocation of funds is one of the primary responsibilities of Congress, that should concern us all. 

The deadline has been the same for over a hundred years. It doesn’t sneak up on members. But rather than do the work they were elected to do and come to a compromise agreement, political grandstanding rules the day. Under Republican party control and Democratic party control. Sometimes the barriers are in the House, sometimes in the Senate.

And so, to keep the government funded Congress passes short term “Continuing Resolutions” that extend the previous year’s spending plan into the new fiscal year that starts on October 1. So our constitutional democracy limps along. Sometimes, two, three, or more continuing resolutions are needed before an agreement is reached. Sometimes the government shuts down for hours, days, or even weeks as the political posturing goes on.

Let’s be clear. This is just about political posturing.

The spending bills exist. They contain both critically important funding and a myriad of tax breaks, special funding, and directions that individual members or congressional committees insert to satisfy special interests. The ostensible disagreement is not what to spend money on, or really even how much to spend.

There is no serious principled disagreement about whether the country should pay its bills and maintain its credit to borrow money (the self- inflicted and purposeless debt ceiling crisis).

It is mostly about pretending to want to spend less, or incur less debt, or object to specific spending items. Somewhere, with some voters and political donors, that’s the cold and cynical political play.

There are real-world consequences for this political gameplaying – including for science and scientists

Continuing resolutions are bad enough. Just extending last year’s spending plan stifles innovation. New ideas get dropped or delayed. New grants. New data collection programs, and the application of new scientific knowledge to serve the public. Scientific programs that may be planned for the autumn get put on hold even when a critical field season is upon us; or a long-planned experiment is set to begin; or an international meeting, years in planning, is finally coming together. 

And that’s just one piece of the broader damage inflicted when the government shuts down and nearly all federal agencies get stuck in a holding pattern until their carefully prepared budgets are set by Congress. Every agency wastes a huge amount of time and effort in that holding pattern.

And even worse is when someone in Congress believes there is advantage in forcing the government to shut down, even for a day. All so some members can beat their chests and say, “I stopped the government. See my power.” As if there is not power and satisfaction in doing your damned job. 

At a time when federal science programs are trying to recover from the relentless attacks on science by the previous administration. a government shutdown is the last thing we need. We need to rebuild our federal science programs, not add more uncertainty. We need new scientists to step forward for public service, and shutdowns don’t help. 

A well-functioning constitutional democracy doesn’t shut down its government.  It evolves, improves, and adjusts its government as new information and priorities emerge.  We should all demand that our government function as our constitution designs. 

That means Congress must do its job and meet its deadlines.  It means parties need to find solutions not problems in political differences. It means that we need a government that is funded and functioning to protect the health, safety, and well-being of us all.