Brookings Institute’s assessment of Congress’ ability to pass a budget by Sept. 30 is grim.
“Congress appears to be on track to trigger a government shutdown on Oct. 1, 2023, because it is not expected to pass the 12 appropriations bills that fund government operations before the start of the new fiscal year,” the nonprofit public policy group said in a report published July 31.
That in itself may not be surprising — there have been more than 20 shutdowns and funding gaps since 1976, and Congress is almost always late on its appropriations deadlines. The result is a near annual threat of government operations being pared down without a fresh influx of money.
“Under the Antideficiency Act (initially passed in 1884 and amended in 1950), federal agencies cannot spend or obligate any money without an appropriation (or other approval) from Congress,” Brookings says. “When Congress fails to enact the 12 annual appropriation bills, federal agencies must cease all non-essential functions until Congress acts. This is known as a government shutdown.”
That means something for almost everyone: the public, industry and, of course, government workers. And typically, agencies have little notice when it comes time to implement a shutdown furlough, per the Office of Personnel Management’s guidance.
It’s partly why agencies have contingency plans on file with the Office of Management and Budget, detailing how each will proceed in the event of a lapse in appropriations.
During a shutdown, employees are told not to come to work and those who are deemed essential workers continue working without pay until Congress takes action.
“Benefits such as Social Security and Medicare continue to flow because they are authorized by Congress in laws that do not need annual approval (although the services offered by Social Security benefit offices may be limited during a shutdown),” says Brookings. “In addition, the Treasury can continue to pay interest on U.S. Treasury debt on time.”
What makes a shutdown likely this year, according to Brookings, is added complications by the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which “set limits on annual appropriated spending” for defense and nondefense next year.
“When the House and Senate pass different bills, the next step is a conference committee at which the two chambers are supposed to forge a compromise, which goes to a vote in each chamber before going to the president,” according to the report. “That is likely to be very contentious this year—and there is not much time.”
There are only a few weeks in between when the House and Senate return and when the fiscal year ends, and House Republicans have indicated they want to spend less than even what is set by the debt ceiling bill, “much to the consternation of Democrats and the White House, which says President Biden would veto the appropriations bills that are pending in the House.”
The House bills also include contentious provisions on abortion, contraception, regulation of tobacco, and healthcare that are not likely to gain support in the Senate.
The act also disincentivizes passing a temporary stop-gap measure extending beyond December 2023 by further cutting defense spending.
“A continuing resolution this fall could avoid a shutdown—if the House can approve one,” Brookings says.
Historically, there have been four shutdowns in which operations were affected for more than a single business day, according to the report.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.