U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

September 16, 2023

Shutdown the Shutdown

Speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy acknowledged a truth this week when he said, Nobody wins in a government shutdown.” There is no such thing as a “good government shutdown.” The House needs to work with the Senate to avoid such a nightmare, and time is running out fast.

The federal government’s fiscal year ends September 30. If we do not pass the 12 annual spending bills – what Congress calls “appropriations” – functions of the federal government will be suspended beginning October 1. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers across every single state, including Maryland, will be furloughed. Businesses, big and small, who rely on work under federal contracts also would be affected, and they may need to furlough workers until contracts resume.

If you’re anxious about getting that passport renewal in time for your upcoming trip, you may have even more cause for worry, depending on how long a shutdown lasts. And if you are a small business owner waiting on clearance from the FDA for a new product or label, or you are mid-clearance on an FHA home loan, you could be stuck.

Essential public safety functions like the military, border patrol and prison guards would remain on the job, but those individuals forced to work during a government shutdown may see a delay in delivery of their pay depending on the length of the shutdown. All federal employees will be paid eventually, thanks to a law I authored that was enacted in January 2019, but a delayed paycheck hurts. The promise of back pay later will not cover the rent due today or the groceries needed for the week. It won’t make a car payment or cover prescriptions. A federal government shutdown means hardship for hundreds of thousands of workers, their families, and their communities.

The Congressional Research Service reports that there have been 14 shutdowns since 1981. Most have lasted only a day or two. The most recent, stretching 35 days from December 2018 through January 2019, was the longest. It cost the overall economy about $3 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The damage to individual families who had to go more than a month without pay is incalculable.

I can report to you that the United States Senate is doing its part to avoid a federal government shutdown. This summer, the Appropriations Committee approved all 12 bills on a bipartisan basis, moving them forward to the full Senate for consideration. Senators have policy differences, of course, but the process kept moving – as it should – and senators kept talking and negotiating – as they should – until the legislation was complete.

This last week, the Senate made progress on a package of three of those bills – Military Construction, Veteran Affairs and Related Agencies; Agriculture & Food and Drug Administration; Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. The first procedural vote moved ahead 85-12, and a later vote passed 91-7, so we are keeping up the bipartisan momentum.

As we continue to work through these and the other appropriations bills, the Senate also is prepared to approve a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government running. Typically, I am not a fan of CRs because they freeze spending and block new priorities and programs. However, given the choice between a dangerous shutdown and a short-term CR, I will gladly go with the CR.   

The House of Representatives needs to catch up. Some of the most radical members of the Republican conference continue to use the threat of a shutdown to squeeze into the annual spending bills their broadly unpopular policy positions on abortion, immigration, and even ending support for Ukraine. Members of the so-called Freedom Caucus seem to relish the idea of a shutdown and have laid down demands associated with extreme policy positions that would be wholly unacceptable to a majority in the Senate – and the nation, for that matter. In addition, it appears that Speaker McCarthy agreed to open an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, despite there being no evidence that one is warranted, to appease his far-right flank so they would vote for a CR. To date, that scheme has sputtered and we await his next move while the deadline for a shutdown draws closer.

In the meantime, I expect the Senate to keep working in good faith to finalize our appropriations bills. Job growth remains strong, wages are up and the federal investments made possible by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science bill are kicking into high gear. Now is not the time to throw a wrench into the economy for the sake of an unrealistic and radical agenda.

Three months ago, Congress passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 to prevent a catastrophic and unprecedented default on the full faith and credit of the United States. This legislation also created a budget framework for future spending in our closely divided government. Each one of the Senate appropriations bills fall within these guidelines. While I would have chosen a different framework, it is now the law. I would urge my House colleagues to abide by its guideposts without wasting more time and energy on extraneous, partisan measures they know will fail. The uncertainty and fear that comes with the threat of a shutdown harms our federal workforce, as well as the federal programs and assistance that Americans rely on daily. We must find a way back to reasonable compromise that ends the constant brinksmanship and prioritizes the wellbeing of the American people. This is my goal.

To all the federal workers across Maryland, please know that your public service is valued and I will always do everything possible to keep you from getting caught in the political crossfire. Thank you for all you do on behalf of our great nation.  

As always, thank you for your time. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this or any other topic. I value your insights and observations.

Ben Cardin