Congress Averts Government Shutdown

March 02, 2011

March 2, 2011 — Uncle Sam is staying open for business, at least through the middle of March.

With Congressional funding for fiscal year 2011 set to expire Friday, March 4, the Senate today voted 91 to 9 to approve a bill to pay for government operations for another 2 weeks. The House passed the measure yesterday. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

Last year, Congress laid the groundwork for a possible shutdown by appropriating funds for government operations only through March 4, even though the current fiscal year ends September 30.

Now lawmakers have 2 weeks to devise another funding bill to avert a shutdown that will otherwise take place when funding expires Friday, March 18. However, the prospects of a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-controlled Senate reaching an agreement are dimmer this time around, given the partisan battle over budget cuts.

With the 2-week extension passed today, deficit-minded Republicans managed to reduce federal spending during the current fiscal year by $4 billion. They did that by terminating programs that Obama had already targeted for the trash heap and eliminating earmarks opposed by both parties. All in all, the cuts were relatively small potatoes.

Republicans now seek to trim an additional $61 billion with a bill that funds the government through September 30, and some of these cuts would deprive the Obama administration of money to implement healthcare reform legislation. This bill won House approval last month, but the depth of the cuts and the defunding of the Affordable Care Act make the legislation a likely loser in the Democratic Senate.

Essential vs Unessential

For all the angst the term triggers, "government shutdown" ought to be amended to "partial government shutdown."

After all, both Republican and Democratic administrations have understood that Uncle Sam must continue to deliver essential services provided by essential employees. This means fielding troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, mailing Social Security checks, directing airport traffic, maintaining power grids, operating prisons, and taking care of hospitalized patients in Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Partial as a shutdown may be, healthcare nevertheless takes some hits, because some federal activities fall into the unessential category. According to the Congressional Research Service and Congressional testimony, 2 government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 had these effects:

  • The National Institutes of Health Clinical Center did not accept new patients for clinical research.

  • The National Institutes of Health did not answer hotline calls about diseases.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped its disease surveillance.

The shutdown, however, did not interrupt Medicare reimbursements to physicians. Money for paying physician and hospital claims comes out of government trust funds that do not depend on Congressional appropriations, and private companies that process and pay those claims on behalf of the Medicare program kept cutting checks, even though the federal government stopped paying them to do so.

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