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What Minnesota Can Teach America About Avoiding Future Government Shutdowns

The US government shutdown is over for now and Trump and the Senate Republicans lost in the court of public opinion.  Trump has temper-tantrumed another government shutdown if he does not get his wall and Republican senators are apoplectic at th is prospect, fearing partisan loss of their chamber come 2020 if that happens. What should they do and, more importantly, what should the American government do to prevent a future shutdown?  The answer is simple–learn from the state of Minnesota and do what it did not–enact into law an automatic continuing resolution to prevent future shutdowns.

With one shutdown over and the next looming the real focus now should be on the causes and consequences of the shutdown and how to prevent a future one.  Technically the government shuts down when there is no legal authorization to spend money. There is a simple way to prevent shutdowns whether in three weeks or the future and it is the same solution I have argued for in Minnesota for the past 15 years–pass a law enabling an automatic continuing resolution to continue funding the government in the event that no budget agreement or normal continuing resolution are adopted.

Minnesotans know a lot about government shutdowns.  We have had three since 2001–more than any government in the US, if not the world.   What we have learned about what causes and ends them might tell Americans something about why the US shutdown occurred and what it will take to prevent future ones.

Minnesota is a microcosm of the US.  It once enjoyed a  pristine image political image.  Touted in the 1970s with then governor Wendell Anderson on the cover of Time Magazine as the state that works, the reality is that Minnesota has become a partisanly divided state that has impacted the performance of its state government.  Minnesota is the only state with split partisan control of the legislature. Similar to the federal government which has a budget process and deadlines, Minnesota has one too.

Yet since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the state has more often than not missed statutory deadlines, resulting in government closures and court fights.  In 2001 with Democrats in control of the Senate, Republicans in the House, and Independence Party Governor Jesse Ventura, the state started its new fiscal year without a budget but was saved from a shutdown with a last minute deal.  With a similar partisan legislative split in 2005 and Republican Tim Pawlenty as governor, there was a partial shutdown of nine days, and in 2011 with Republicans controlling both houses of the legislature and Democrat Mark Dayton as governor, there was a 20-day partial shutdown. In each case, state courts intervened to order essential governmental functions to be funded, and the shutdowns ended when public pressure and political self-interest drove leaders to compromise.  It also did not hurt that the inability to issue beer licenses added to the public pressure.

In addition to these shutdowns, in 2009 Tim Pawlenty sought to use special powers referred to unallotment to end a budget impasse (perhaps similar to President Trump’s threat to use the National Emergencies Act to build the wall), only to see the state supreme court reject it.  In 2017 Governor Dayton used his line-item veto to eliminate funding for the state legislature’s operations in retaliation for the latter’s refusal to follow his budget wishes.  In 2018 he vetoed an omnibus spending bill the Republicans had adopted, containing 80% of all the substantive legislation they had adopted that year.

The causes of Minnesota’s budget woes are multiple. The state has an antiquated budget process, built for a horse and buggy era seeking to operate in a twenty-first century environment.  The budget process is highly decentralized, imposes unrealistic deadlines, and has built into it simply bad policies such as a requirement counting inflation for the sake of revenue but ignoring it when it comes to obligations.  The defective formal process is compounded by partisan divides and polarization not anticipated when the budget process was first designed, as well as by inflated egos, partisan ambitions, and lack of leadership.  When a flawed process is accompanied by petty politics, the result is political dysfunction.  The way the shutdowns ended was a combination of court interventions, public pressures, and fear of electoral reprisal.

Much of what we see in Minnesota is exactly what we see at the federal level.  The formal budget process as articulated in the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act simply is broken and needs to be remade. It was legislation adopted post Watergate when there still existed a high degree of consensus on spending priorities and when federal spending was significantly less than it is today. Over time, the process has only four times produced a budget on time (the last in 1997), with most of the time the federal government operating on a series of continuing  resolutions. Fast forward more than 40 years, the budget process is too weak to combat the partisan divide and lack of leadership in Washington, demonstrating that now it is completely broken.

Process and procedure are important, but the history of Minnesota’s and the federal budgeting demonstrate that formal procedures can only go so far.  A bad process makes it hard to do good budgeting.  But processes are only as good as the people who use them.  Budget disputes and government shutdowns are the product of significant political dissensus and failures of leadership.  So much of the US government, from the days of the constitutional framers to the present, was premised upon a basic underlying consensus and commitment to the public good that has evaporated.  Unfortunately, what is needed are new institutional rules to address this reality.

For the last 15 years in Minnesota I have argued for adoption of an automatic continuing resolution that would keep it funded no matter what.  The same should be adopted at the federal level and one hears Senate Republicans the like of Lamar Alexander suggest automatic continuing resolutions as a way to tame Trump and their party’s own extremists  and preserve their jobs.  The federal government should also consider biennial as opposed to annual budgets, and consider changing committee structures and time lines to streamline the process.  But even with these fixes, they will not solve the core problem driving government shutdowns–polarization, political pettiness, philosophical differences on the role and value of the government, and a crisis of leadership.  After each of its shutdowns Minnesota failed to learn from it mistakes, making no changes in the budget process or adopting the automatic continuing resolution idea, but perhaps the federal government can learn from its own mistakes and Minnesota’s.

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David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.

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