EDITORIAL: Shutdown shows Congress’ shortcomings

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We were pleased to see Congress reopen the federal government on Monday, ending a relatively brief shutdown. But it’s hard to offer federal lawmakers any real kudos without sounding insincere.

For instance, “Thanks for failing to keep the country operational for just three days instead of more” comes off as more of an insult than a compliment.

The fact is that government shutdowns are embarrassing, disruptive and maddeningly wasteful. Consider how much time federal workers spent on Friday and Saturday explaining how a shutdown would affect their bureau or agency — including crafting messages on Facebook to say they would not be posting on social media until the shutdown was over.

Then, after all the hand-wringing, cable news countdown clocks and uncertainty, things headed back to normal on Monday afternoon. In a provision that is fair to the many federal workers who were furloughed — and arguably unfair to taxpayers — employees who were prohibited from working over the weekend and Monday will be paid for those lost hours just as if they were on the job.

Cases can be made as to which party or politician was at fault for the impasse, but that misses the true problem: Congress’ inability to pass a budget.

In Wyoming, lawmakers take on the difficult but fairly straightforward task of crafting a budget every other year. They figure out how much money they have available, then divvy it up while making sure not to spend more cash than is available. Legislators will begin that process during the upcoming Budget Session, which is set to start Feb. 12 and wrap up by early March.

Any temptation state legislators might feel to overspend is blocked by the Wyoming Constitution, which requires a balanced budget. Any thought they might have of lollygagging on the budget is prohibited by another provision that limits how many days they can be in session.

Congress could use similar restraints on its work.

Rather than pass an annual budget, senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., routinely pass last-minute stopgap funding measures known as “continuing resolutions.” The agreement reached on Monday will only provide enough funding to last through Feb. 8. Then, theoretically, Republicans and Democrats could do this all over again.

One provision inserted into Monday’s deal almost seems to anticipate another shutdown — specifying that if there’s another lapse in funding this year, federal employees will still be paid for the time they’re furloughed. In other words, taxpayers would once again pay government employees to literally do nothing.

Clearly, something needs to change in Congress.

Wyoming Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso have co-sponsored a bill that would prevent future shutdowns by automatically providing funding when Congress fails to pass an annual budget. However, lawmakers would feel the pressure to replace those continuing resolutions with an actual budget, because funding would drop by 1 percent across the board after 120 days of inaction — then another 1 percent every 90 days after that.

That concept sounds reasonable.

But one inescapable part of the problem is Congress’ belief that it has a blank checkbook. Tens of millions of dollars are nothing when compared to a national debt that already totals an incomprehensible $20.6 trillion.

If Congress was required to pass a balanced budget — that is, to rely on a finite pool of money like American businesses and citizens do — we suspect they’d be less likely to allow millions of dollars to be squandered on a shutdown.

Undoubtedly, there are plenty of other ways to improve things. The only truly unacceptable option is for our federal lawmakers to keep doing business as usual. 

As Sen. Enzi said on Tuesday, “Regardless of who a person blames for the recent partial government shutdown, these situations don’t have to happen.”

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