On Explaining Government Shutdowns

We here at Coherent Nonsense are always striving to provide you, the dear reader, a well-rounded reading experience. Some sappy baseball musings appetizers (e.g., my Joe Mauer fan-boy post), some tasty dating red-meat morsels (e.g., everything else in my blog) and now your vegetables – a primer on the legal mumbo-jumbo leading up to a federal government shut-down. As the Captain Crunch cereal commercial noted during Saturday morning cartoons (I still have fond memories of my little sister waking me up on 6:30am every Saturday so I could switch on for her the circa 1976 Zenith television whose vertical hold was on the perpetual fritz with always cagey reception that was wheezing itself to slow death in my childhood bedroom which needed a pair of pliers to turn the channel dial, all so she could watch Captain Kangaroo with her Cabbage Patch Kids) – it’s all part of a complete breakfast (since my tangent likely has led you astray from the original thought….we’re talking about the Captain Crunch commercial saying it was all part of a complete breakfast, which probably makes modern day nutritionists gag with a spoon, but it’s all part of our kid heritage, so whatevs) [ed. note – my freshman year writing TA probably would barf all over this paragraph and tell me if I’ve already lost the reader through my tangled web, it was totes time to re-write. But, my blog is all about the tangential, so whateves, infinity +1. On the other hand, he also imparted some Shakespearian wisdom to me that I’ve always treasured – “brevity is the soul of wit,” a truism this paragraph pointedly refuses to embrace].

So, anyways, back to the veggies. I was having lunch with a good friend the other day, and they were asking me about how this Government Shutdown goat-rodeo all came to be. For those of you still emerging from the “Week Between Christmas and New Years Space-Time Vortex” (it’s a real thing!) and are still having difficulty discerning what the day of the week it might be, and have understandably lost touch with the shenanigans of your representative democracy (after all, as we used to say in the lobbying biz, “a lobbyist is someone you hire to protect you from the people you elect”), a good chunk of the Federal government mothballed its operations right before Christmas given that the Federal cash had run dry, and since Congress and President Trump couldn’t spread some good cheer and hammer out a budget.

I’ll spare you the hack punditry (lord knows it’s barging down your virtual doors), and just try to stick to the facts and legal/legislative mechanics of how some of the government’s gears ground to a halt. Let’s start, shall we? And as a treat for you to eat your policy wonk vegetables, I’ll give you an update afterwards on the recovery operations of my favorite T-shirt previously hijacked by the ATLDA Girl previously chronicled on these pages. AND NO SKIPPING TO THE END. BECAUSE IF YOU DO….Well, I’ve got nothing other than empty threats. Do what you want. Who am I judge? It’s your internet connection. However, you could totally be the star of your post-holiday cocktail parties by cutting off at the knees the rando douchebag that inevitably shows up at these parties by fighting their hot-headed fiction with fact regarding why the government shutdown. You’ll be the hero, and win friends and influence people. You’re welcome for the future ego stroke. Just be sure to mention the blog. COHERENTNONSENSE.BLOG.

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“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law” — U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9, Clause 7

Like any good legal analysis regarding our Federal government, we need to start with Uncle Sam’s creation document – the U.S. Constitution. The clause set forth above is one of the several powers expressly, and exclusively, delegated to Congress by the Constitution. Deciphering the Founders’ code flawless and correct English (thus incomprehensible to all of us), it basically says that the Federal government (e.g., the executive branch) can’t spend any money unless Congress approves it (or, in Congressional parlance/cryptic code, “appropriated it”). In the other words, it’s the “Power of the Purse” clause that we heard so much about in social studies class.

Basically, Congress needs to pass a law appropriating money to the Federal government to spend (the equivalent of Congress writing a check in a certain amount to the executive branch). To bring you back to the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” ditty we all loved back in the day, in order for a bill to become a law, it must pass both the House and Senate in identical form by a majority in each chamber, and then be signed by the President (or if the President vetoes the bill, Congress can still enact the bill into law by a 2/3 majority in both the House and Senate voting to override the veto).

And you didn’t think I’d drop a Schoolhouse Rock reference and leave you, dear reader, without a link to I’m Just a Bill? Nay, I would never, ever do that to you (I’m a lot of things, but never a tease)….

Boom. You’re welcome.

Back to the Power of the Purse. The Purse actually has a shit-ton of compartments. More like 26 to be exact. See, Congress doesn’t just pass one bill to fund all of the Federal government. The federal bureaucracy is far too massive for one bill, and this is Congress, and there’s far too many egos and mouths to feed to allow just one bill.

Rather, both the House and Senate have established their own respective Appropriations Committees, and each of those committees has 12 sub-committees. Each subcommittee has a specific jurisdictional sandbox over a defined piece of the federal government (both the House and Senate subcommittee structure mirror each other). For instance, the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies subcommittee [ed.  note: I hate the Oxford comma. With the passion of the hatred that people save for Nickelback. For the record, I like Nickelback, but whatever. The Oxford comma is the douchiest of all grammar rules, and just gives an excuse for snooty people to indulge their primal snootiness. Anyway, I use the Oxford comma here since it’s used in the official name of the sub-committee. The bullets I take for you dear reader….].

Back to the fabled Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies subcommittee. This panel writes the bill that funds the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, NASA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, National Science of Foundation and a host of other related agencies.

So, there’s the House Appropriations Committee (1), its 12 sub-committees (12), the Senate Appropriations Committee (1) and its 12 sub-committees (12) = 26-pocketed Power of the Purse.

[Cue Old Man Voice: Back in my day in DC (circa 1995-2000), there used to be 13 appropriations subcommittees in each chamber. AND WE LIKED IT. And then the whipper-snappers in 2005 went and reduced the subcommittee count to 12. We should have yelled at them to get off the Capitol lawn]

Here’s another important trivia tidbit: The federal fiscal year starts on October 1, and ends on September 30 annually. Thus, even though we celebrated the dawning of calendar 2019 just a few days ago, Federal Fiscal Year 2019 has been raging it since last October 1.    Note that most states run from July 1-June 30. The federal fiscal year used to roll this way, but it was adjusted to an October 1-September 30 cycle in 1976 in order to give Congress more time to pass a budget. Ironic given our current mess….

The typical yearly appropriations dance starts with the President proposing a budget early in the calendar year (under current law, the President’s budget proposal is due on the first Monday in February each year, however there’s no real teeth to this deadline, and which like any deadline with no real teeth, sometimes results in the White House blowing past this deadline with no real remorse).

Once upon a time, Coherent Nonsense roamed the halls of the U.S. Capitol as an eager, yet mediocre young lobbyist for Big Retail, and can remember all the other lobbyists hungrily devouring the President’s budget, howling screams of agony for a week, and then moving on to the next big outrage du jour. That’s pretty much what Congress does too – it’s supposed to use the President’s budget as a baseline, but usually just tosses the budget into the garbage can and does its own thang. It’s kinda like the State of the Union or even the Super Bowl –  everyone hypes it up, and then no one can precisely remember what happened a few days later. DC is the ultimate in ADHD. Squirrel.

Onwards. Congress needs to process 12 appropriations bills before the new fiscal year starts on October 1. Usually the relevant subcommittee holds hearings, holds mark-up sessions and votes out a bill to the full Appropriations committee, and then the committee moves the bill to the floor, where it’s voted on by the full chamber. There’s then usually a conference committee between the House and Senate to hammer out a final bill that gets voted on again by each house (interesting factoid: conference committee bills can’t be amended on the House and Senate floor since bills must pass both chambers in identical format), and it gets shipped off to the President for signature.

While all 12 bills need to be signed by October 1 to keep the federal government fully functioning, having all 12 bills signed, sealed and delivered seldom happens. In fact, it hasn’t happened since 1997. Usually, once October 1 nears, Congress passes, and the President signs, what’s called a “Continuing Resolution” (or, in even more Congressional parlance, a “CR”). A CR covers the federal agencies whose bills haven’t passed yet and keeps them funded at the prior year levels until a certain date.

Whew. Now that you’ve suffered through all of that Congressional nonsense, let’s talk about how we got into the current goat rodeo. As expected, Congress did not pass all 12 appropriations bills before October 1, 2018. However, Congress made some progress, enacting three appropriations bills covering the following agencies: Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services and Labor. Importantly, since the Defense bill was passed, the nation’s armed forces are operating business as usual (except the Coast Guard, which is funded out of the Homeland Security bill, which is the unpassed bill that’s holding everything up, since it also funds border security efforts, so the good folks defending our coasts are working without pay. Sleep well tonight).

Just before October 1 this year, Congress enacted a CR which funded the agencies whose appropriations bills hadn’t passed yet until December 7. Congress subsequently extended this CR until December 21 following the passing of President George H.W. Bush.

The House, Senate and White House reportedly struck a tentative deal to pass another CR extending funding until February 8, however the President withdrew his support, and since the prior CR ran out on December 21, the agencies whose appropriations bills had not passed shut-down on December 22, and most of their employees have been placed on furlough.

Here’s where I should also note that the federal government isn’t fully closed for business. The agencies that have had their appropriations bills passed are fully up and running, as are agencies that don’t receive Congressional funding (such as the United States Post Office (funded by stamps) and the banking regulatory agencies, like the FDIC (funded by bank fees)).

However, a number of federal employees of unfunded agencies have been basically deemed essential (or “excepted”) due to national security or public safety concerns (such as TSA agents), and are being required to work. However, their agencies lack the legal authority to pay them, so these employees are basically working on a federal IOU (e.g., they ain’t getting paychecks until this shutdown fiasco gets figured out). Long story short, be nice to your TSA agents. Because they’re literally working without a paycheck right now.

These employees will be paid eventually for the work done (without any interest, of course). Additionally, as part of previous shutdown-ending deals, furloughed workers generally also have gotten paid for the time they missed due to the shutdown. Sadly, the federal government also employs a massive amount of independent contractors (think janitorial staff and IT peeps). Those folks are also furloughed, and won’t see a dime for their time missed.

Coherent Nonsense was a wee Congressional intern working for Paul Wellstone (may he rest in peace….) back during the Great Clinton-Gingrich shutdown in 1995, and I can tell you that it was one of the more stressful workplace situations I’ve ever encountered. A number of Congressional staffers had been deemed essential, thus were working without pay and tempers were razor-thin (I did not have such worries, because I was working for free, which also meant the interns were kept pretty busy during the shutdown, since we could fill in for furloughed staffers. I remember someone asked me to get Paul out of a meeting, which turned out to be with the White House Chief of Staff, and when I found out that lil’ nugget, I noted to my boss that such activity was probably above my pay-grade, which was “pay-grade zero.” She agreed). Politics, posturing and walls are all fun and games, but the pawns are people with families, mortgages to pay, groceries to buy and kids’ activities to pay for.

The end-game will likely be an omnibus bill negotiated between Congress and the White House that includes the remaining appropriations bills, as well as funding for essential workers who worked during the shut-down and pay for furloughed workers. Then we start all over again, because we’re already staring down the shotgun barrel of Fiscal Year 2020.

It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad. But it’s our railroad.

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Now, your (low-cal) dessert! As you may remember, the Above the Legal Drinking Age (ATLDA) Girl absconded with my favorite t-shirt – a shirt that was bravely sacrificed in the name of ATLDA Girl not having to do the penultimate morning walk of shame in an evening gown. I’m pleased to say that I’ve re-established a diplomatic relationship with the ATLDA Girl, and she was even kind enough to bring over a bottle of wine a few days after I broke up with Rochester Girl to listen me kvetch about it (and get your dirty minds out of the gutter – it was totes plutonic…it was really nice of her to come over!). However, the ambassador has not yet managed the successful release of said t-shirt.

However, sometimes you need to lose before you can win! An intrepid Coherent Nonsense reader (who shall remain anonymous, because that’s just how Coherent Nonsense rolls) somehow: a) ascertained what my favorite t-shirt was; and 2) navigated the depths of the inter-webs, found said t-shirt for purchase and gave it to me as a Christmas gift. I was totally flabbergasted – one of the more touching gifts I’ve ever received. What once was lost, has now been found. A Coherent Nonsense Christmas miracle!

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Speaking of Christmas, I’ve done a bunch of thinking over the holidays, and I want to be more focused on gratitude and expressing appreciation for the multitudes of good things that I’ve been blessed with in my life. And tops on the list are you dear reader – I’ve been so grateful for the encouragement I’ve received from many of you about Coherent Nonsense and my random musings – from the kind words you provided on Facebook, the private messages and sharing the blog with your friends. I so much appreciate the privilege of you spending some moments of your precious time looking through the window into my life. I’ll keep writing if you keep reading!

Happy New Year everyone. Let’s all make 2019 our bitch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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