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Congressional offices often invest considerable time and energy into crafting the perfect name for legislation. Bills that have memorable acronyms tend to get more attention, while hopefully conveying the purpose of the underlying idea.
One of my personal favorites [msnbc.com] was an infrastructure bill from a few years ago called the Generating Renewal, Opportunity, and Work with Accelerated Mobility, Efficiency and Rebuilding of Infrastructure and Communities throughout America Act (the GROW AMERICA Act). I can almost picture Capitol Hill aides giving each other high-fives after coming up with that one.
Yesterday, a new gem was unveiled when Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who represents a whole lot of federal workers adversely affected by the government shutdown, introduced a bill [washingtonpost.com] called the “Stop STUPIDITY Act.” The Washington Post reported:
The measure …would automatically keep all of the federal government running in the case of a future funding standoff – with the exceptions of the legislative branch and the Executive Office of the President.
“The Stop STUPIDITY Act takes the aggressive but necessary step of forcing the president and Congress to do the jobs they were elected to do,” Warner said in a statement. “Workers, business owners and tax payers are currently paying the price of D.C. gridlock and my legislation will put an end to that.”
In this case, the “Stop STUPIDITY” in the bill’s title stands for “Stop Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years Act.” (Some might quibble about leaving out the “c” in “coming,” but let’s be generous and say Warner and his team were close enough.)
Of course, far more important than the name is the substantive point behind the bill, and in this case, the Virginia Democrat’s proposal has real merit.
It’s worth remembering that for most of American history, there were no government shutdowns. In the event of budget impasses, departments and agencies kept operating at existing funding levels, creating a debt that officials knew would be repaid once the impasse was resolved.
Toward the end of the Carter administration, when budget controversies were common, the Justice Department did an analysis of an obscure law called the “Antideficiency Act of 1870,” which as Time magazine explained [time.com], was enacted “to stop the then-routine practice of agencies intentionally overspending, secure in the knowledge that Congress would eventually have to pick up the tab.”
Carter’s attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, wrote at the time, “On its face, the plain and unambiguous language of the Antideficiency Act prohibits an agency from incurring pay obligations once its authority to expend appropriations lapses.”
A new era was born.
Nearly four decades later, Warner has made a compelling case that it’s time to simply change federal law, creating a funding dynamic in which the government would never actually shut down. If lawmakers and a president failed, for whatever reason, to pass the necessary appropriations bills, the lapse wouldn’t have a detrimental effect because departments and agencies would maintain their existing funding levels.
It’s hard to say with any confidence whether a bill like this might pass, though it’s worth emphasizing that there’s nothing inherently partisan or ideological about the “Stop STUPIDITY Act.” Republican presidents would no longer be able to leverage federal workers as hostages, but neither would Democratic presidents.
For policymakers to fight against an idea like this is to effectively argue that extortion tactics must remain an option. It’s the same argument proponents of debt-ceiling crises embrace: radical leaders should maintain the ability to take American hostages when it suits their purposes.
That said, the era of “governing by near-death experiences [msnbc.com]” isn’t an inconvenient and unavoidable fact of modern life. Officials can take these options away.