WASHINGTON — There is a way to prevent government shutdowns. A change in U.S. law would keep federal workers on the job and ensure that treasured sites like the Statue of Liberty and Yosemite stay open during a budget fight, instead of becoming political pawns.
The idea's been around for three decades, but even after a 16-day shutdown that cost billions of dollars and outraged voters, it's a tough sell in Washington.
Why? Without the risk of a shutdown, there's no telling how long politicians might put off making hard budget decisions.
The United States could end up with government by autopilot.
Even those who say an anti-shutdown law could avoid that trap find it tricky to come up with a plan that's acceptable to the various factions locked in budget gridlock these days.
Nevertheless, a prominent fiscal conservative in the Senate is reviving the idea as lawmakers seek a budget deal to head off the risk of another shutdown in January. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, will use his spot on the House-Senate negotiating team to push his shutdown prevention measure, said his spokeswoman Caitlin Dunn.
"It's appealing to take the risk of shutdown off the table," said Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group seeking to curb the national debt. "But it has its risks."
Money to fund the federal government is appropriated each fiscal year, but Congress almost never finishes its regular appropriations bills on time. The usual solution is to approve "continuing resolutions" that let agencies keep going at current spending levels. Without spending power, they must send workers home.
Shutdowns are so disruptive and unpopular that politicians have rarely resorted to them. This month's was the first in 17 years. While many operations of government shut down, the closing of national parks is one of the disruptions most visible to the public. Parks were shut down from the museums and monuments along the National Mall to the Statue of Liberty to popular getaways like the Rocky Mountain National Park, prompting angry public reactions.
Trying to eliminate the risk of a shutdown could create persistent new troubles, however.
"If funding for the previous year never actually expires, their motivation to pass an appropriations bill would be lower," Goldwein said. If lawmakers shirk their duty to adjust spending to reflect the nation's changing needs, he said, "It would be bad for the country."
Portman, a former White House budget director in the George W. Bush administration, wants to goad lawmakers to finish their overdue work by cutting spending as time goes by.
If lawmakers miss their Oct. 1 appropriations deadlines, agencies would stay at last year's spending level for 120 days. After that, spending would drop by 1 percent for every 90 days that go by.
Senate Democrats rejected that plan by a nearly party-line vote in January, although Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is a co-sponsor. Portman is also getting resistance from some conservatives who don't want to lose the shutdown leverage embraced by Tea Partiers.
Shutdowns didn't become a political tactic until 1980, when the Carter administration took a closer look at a decades-old budget law and realized that it requires agencies to send all but the most critical workers home if their funding lapses. The comptroller general recommended that Congress fix the problem back in 1981.
Lawmakers tried many times but only came close once, after the budget showdown in the winter of 1995-96.
The Republican-controlled Congress, branded with most of the blame for two shutdowns, attached a shutdown prevention measure to a flood relief bill. But their plan was anathema to Democrats — it would have kept agencies open but imposed a 2 percent budget cut.
Democratic President Clinton vetoed the bill because it would let Republicans cut spending by failing to act.
Depending how they're designed, automatic funding schemes can create an incentive for either budget cutters or defenders of the status quo to block spending bills because they prefer the default option. Richard Kogan of the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls that "governing by paralysis."
"It would make government less responsive than it already is," Kogan said. "That's got to be a bad thing.