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Could Congressional Gridlock Lead to More Government Shutdowns?




The House speaker elections last week turned a typically routine government procedure into a dramatic affair. They also exposed a major vulnerability in Congress: A small segment of lawmakers can stop the process of basic governance to obtain what it wants, with potentially big ramifications for the country.

In the speaker fight, the immediate consequences were relatively small. A Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy, is leading a majority-Republican House.

More critical is how Republicans got there. McCarthy made concessions that will weaken his power, make it easier for lawmakers to oust him and give the right-wing rank-and-file greater input in legislation and in lawmakers’ assignments to committees, where Congress does much of its work.

The graver consequences will unfold months from now if the ultraconservatives who prolonged the speaker selection again withhold their votes until they have their way on looming spending bills. Congress must pass such legislation to keep the government open and avoid economic calamity. If deadlines for these bills come and go without a resolution, the government could be forced to shut down or, worse, default on its debt obligations, likely triggering a financial crisis. (More on that later.)

The right flank has already connected its opposition to McCarthy to such spending bills. In speeches during the four-day speaker battle, far-right Republicans cited a $1.7 trillion spending bill Congress passed last month to argue that establishment figures, including McCarthy, have failed to reduce government spending. Among the concessions that ultraconservatives drew from McCarthy was a promise that any increase on the country’s debt limit, a congressionally set cap on the federal debt, will be paired with spending cuts.

Some hard-liners have been clear that they would take drastic action again to have their way on spending. “Is he willing to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling? That’s a nonnegotiable item,” said Representative Ralph Norman, a Republican critic of McCarthy who ultimately voted for him.

The ultraconservatives have said that one of their main goals is to shrink the size of government. “If you don’t stop spending money that we don’t have to fund the bureaucracy that is undermining the American people, we cannot win,” said Representative Chip Roy, a Republican who voted against McCarthy in 11 ballots.

One way to achieve this goal is by pushing Congress toward inaction. Consider some of the assurances the holdout Republicans received from McCarthy: more time to read and debate legislation, as well as to propose unlimited changes to it.

In theory, these changes might sound like common sense, since legislators should, ideally, be taking time to understand and finalize bills. But in practice, these kinds of allowances have slowed Congress’s work, if not halted it altogether, by giving lawmakers more chances to stand in the way of any kind of legislation.

This roadblock is especially likely in a closely divided Congress. Since House Republicans have a slim majority of 222 votes out of 435, they must rely on their right-wing faction to reach a majority in any vote (absent unlikely support from Democrats). Last week, that faction showed it will wield its leverage.

“It’s all about the ability — empowering us to stop the machine in this town from doing what it does,” Roy said.

If the ultraconservatives use these tactics in future legislative debates, Congress could miss deadlines to keep the government open and avoid a financial crisis.

Among the looming fights is one over the debt limit. If the government ever reaches this limit, it can no longer borrow money to pay off its debts, potentially forcing a default. That could cause serious damage to the global financial system, which relies on U.S. Treasuries as a safe investment.

The government is expected to hit the current debt limit in late summer. Republicans have already suggested that they will try to use negotiations over raising it to draw spending concessions from Senate Democrats and the Biden administration, a tactic that conservatives used during Barack Obama’s presidency. But Democrats have said that they will not negotiate over the debt limit this time.

If both sides stick to their word, the government could be on track for the most treacherous debt-limit debate since 2011, my colleague Jim Tankersley reported. That year, Obama and a new Republican House majority nearly defaulted on the nation’s debt before reaching a deal.

Similarly, the government will have to pass a spending bill in September to remain open. Republicans have, again, suggested that they will use their control of the House to reduce government spending. Democrats have said that they will push back. If both sides fall short of an agreement, the government will shut down, halting or slowing functions like the payment of military salaries, environmental or food inspections and the management of national parks.

The battle over the speaker, then, is potentially a preview of what’s to come: a Congress unable to perform even its basic duties because a small segment of lawmakers are willing to say no.

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