BETWEEN APRIL 26th 2010 and December 6th 2011—a span of 589 days—Belgium had no elected government. Tensions between its Dutch and French-speaking residents meant that the country’s 12 political parties were unable to broker a deal on who would govern. During the impasse, a “caretaker” coalition presided over the country, money still flowed to agencies and the government remained functional. As the United States shutdown becomes the longest in history—it enters its 22nd day on Jan 12th—some Americans are wondering whether theirs is the only country that deals with a gridlock so severe that large portions of its government cease to operate. Their suspicions are correct.
There are several reasons why America is unique in this way. First, there is its peculiar presidential system of democracy, which increases the chance that any given legislation will fail to become law. A single bill must receive assent from the House, Senate, and president. Because Americans vote for members of those branches of government separately, the branches are often led by different parties with different priorities. President Donald Trump is demanding that funding be provided for a border wall before the government is funded; the Democratic-led House of Representatives is refusing. Parliamentary governments, by contrast, can pass spending bills with simple majorities. Because there are not mid-term elections that could give a prime minister or chancellor’s party a sudden minority in the legislature little gets in the way of legislation that enjoys support from the majority.
The process of funding the government is also different in America. Spending bills in the United States are mammoth affairs, with the 2018 bill spanning almost 900 pages. These bills are passed yearly and only fund the government for 12 months. Sometimes, temporary authorisations are made, but if no new bill is passed before the old one expires, funding simply dries up. This is not how the process works in other western democracies where the purpose of new bills is often to amend the status quo. If Theresa May’s government cannot push through a new Finance Bill, the British government doesn’t stop working; funding simply remains at existing levels (though Mrs May might find herself in a bit of hot water).
Rules over working during funding lapses has made shutdowns in America more likely. Before to a rule change in 1980, government agencies often operated before Congress had approved the necessary money, assuming that they would get around to approving the cash sooner or later. Then Benjamin Civiletti, Jimmy Carter’s attorney-general said that this was a violation of US law. The only way to comply was for agencies to not spend the money unless the usage concerned “the safety of human life or the protection of property”; that exempts select spending by the military, among others. The result was the current type of government shutdown whereby funding actually stops flowing and workers stop working. Mr Civiletti’s creation made funding lapses harsher, and thus less frequent—but also established their unique place in America’s democracy.
Antipathy towards big government has also played its part. American conservatives have long maintained that a large federal government infringes upon voters’ rights and a free market. Ronald Reagan quipped that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I'm here to help.’” Republicans are more willing to close the government than their Democratic counterparts. This week, YouGov polled 1,500 Americans on behalf of The Economist and found that 38% of Republicans believe that lawmakers should “fight for the priorities that they believe in, even if it means risking a government shutdown,” compared with 25% of Democrats. It seems that Republicans’ negative feelings about Washington may also extend to federal workers: 65% of Democrats have “a great deal” of sympathy for federal government employees who have been furloughed or are working without pay—compared to 22% of Republicans.