By Holly Maher
On October 1, 2013 at 12:01 AM, the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year, the federal government shut down all non-essential operations when Congress could not pass a continuing resolution to allow spending at current levels. The government shutdown lasted 16 days and, in addition to other impacts, closed the National Parks system (see our blog about the park closures), furloughed 800,000 federal employees, had the potential to impact payment of veterans’ benefits and negatively impacted the economy, both directly and indirectly.
So what caused the government shutdown? If you watched any TV during that 16 day period, you could certainly hear any number of experts (on both sides) explaining who was to blame. As the Cause Mapping methodology is intended to do, this analysis of the government shutdown is not trying to identify the one person, the one group or the one reason to blame for the shutdown. Instead, we will identify all the causes required to produce this effect. This will allow us to identify many possible solutions for preventing it from happening again. We start by asking “why” questions and documenting the answers to visually lay out all the causes that contributed to the shutdown. The cause and effect relationships lay out from left to right.
In this example, the government shutdown occurred because a vote on a continuing resolution bill could not be passed by Congress because there was a line item added to the continuing resolution, defunding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that could not be agreed upon. A continuing resolution was required because the Constitution gives the power to spend money to Congress, and since they had not passed a Budget for fiscal year 2014, a continuing resolution was constitutionally required to continue operating the government after October 1. Defunding the ACA was added to the continuing resolution bill because the ACA was about to go into effect and because it can be added on a line item basis. Congress was unable to compromise to reach an agreement to pass the continuing resolution.
So why was Congress unable to reach an agreement? If the incentive to compromise was greater than the incentive to not compromise, they would have compromised. So why is the incentive to compromise ineffective? One of the reasons is because Congress’s pay is not affected when the government shuts down. Another reason is because there is significant incentive to maintain a position aligned with the party (either left or right). The desire to get re-elected (which is unlimited within Congress), the need for support in the primaries to get re-elected (based on the current primary system), and the need for campaign financing are all causes that support the incentive to maintain alignment with the party versus compromise.
Once all the causes of the government shutdown have been identified, possible solutions to prevent the shutdown from happening again can be brainstormed. One possible solution would be to legally require a continuing resolution to be a “clean” bill, with no additional line items. This would make it more likely in the future, when there are debates or discussions over current, hot button items, such as the ACA, that the result would not be a failure to pass the continuing resolution and therefore cause a government shutdown. Another possible solution would be to stop pay for Congress during the government shutdown. Other more global, systemic solutions might be to implement term limits in Congress or provide government campaign financing to reduce the dependency on party financial support.
To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.