One Government Shutdown Averted, But is There Another Ahead?

Polarization continues to drive Congress, which could face another hard deadline on Nov. 17.

While the government shutdown did not materialize as feared on Sept. 30, it does not mean the U.S. is in the clear due to intense political polarization.

“At the end of the day, the decision on these spending bills is going to have to be bipartisan. Delaying the inevitable is creating a lot of pain on the country,” said SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor, assistant professor of political science whose research centers on the U.S. Congress, congressional leadership, partisanship and the policy-making process.

Historically, the 12 appropriations bills, which set federal spending levels for defense, agriculture, transportation, commerce, and the environment, among others, are approved by an overwhelming bipartisan vote. The appropriation bills should be in place annually by Oct. 1, but, more recently, resolutions have been voted on and signed into law increasingly later in the year.

Holy Cross Professor Daniel Klinghard standing in front of a world map.

Throughout U.S. history there have been moments of moderation, including most of the 20th century, and times of intense partisanship, such as what began to develop in the 1990s and remains today. During times of moderation, there is an incentive for party members to compromise to get things done, but during times of polarization, the incentives are to demonstrate fidelity to the party, which might undermine compromise, according to Daniel Klinghard, professor of political science, co-director of the Charles Carroll Program and an expert in political parties.

"The moment we’re in, one in which voters are polarized, elected officials are polarized, creates an incentive for elected officials to demonstrate their fidelity to party principals," Klinghard said. "It’s less about actually doing anything and more about maintaining control of position and winning elections."

Threats of government shutdowns have been used in recent decades as a negotiating tactic by a party to force discussions and leverage arguments. Recently, such dramatic action is also being used as a tool to generate publicity and as a point of public agitation, said Klinghard. There have been 21 shutdowns since 1976, according to the New York Times. Twelve lasted fewer than five days, with the lengthiest happening in 1995 and 2018. While a shutdown was averted at the end of September, the government could find itself in the same position on Nov. 17 when the stop-gap spending measure runs out. 

Woman dressed in purple shirt and tan skirt leans against a stair railing outside.
SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor, assistant professor of political science, studies the U.S. Congress, particularly congressional leadership, partisanship and the policymaking process.

"We’re in an era of partisanship and opinion on the larger question of how we spend our money is now polarized," Gaynor said. In general, the motivation of Republicans is to spend less money, while Democrats tend to want to put more money into domestic programs, she noted.

"In this situation, we have a majority party that is barely the majority, and this gives power to a small group of people who are able to get attention for themselves and for their priorities. It has become less about having a serious disagreement about spending and more about having a serious disagreement about other issues," Klinghard said. "It’s more about signaling to their constituents that they are representing their views, and that those views are winning, and less about delivering the goods that are in the appropriations bills to their constituents."

Despite the fiery rhetoric, Gaynor said, from a historical perspective, the current process does not indicate that U.S. institutions are broken.

"It can definitely feel disconcerting and unstable but it indicates that members of Congress, even the ones who are willing to shut down the government, believe in the institution of Congress and the importance of checks and balances through the appropriations process," Gaynor said.