It’s not hard to imagine that as Congress edged closer and closer to shutting down the US government at the end of September, most Americans watched with a sense of both disbelief and bemusement. Disbelief, because on Congress’s list of key responsibilities, keeping the federal government running surely ranks near the top. And some degree of confusion because, given overwhelming bipartisan support for passing spending bills, how could things have gotten so dire?
Before we get to that, though, it’s worth remembering that to some extent this is just Congress being Congress. At the best of times, the congressional process is slow, messy, complex, and often contentious—regardless of where popular sentiment lies. Not only is it not designed for quick action, it’s actually structured to slow things down so that matters of national importance can get a careful look.
In general, bills have to go through the committee system, which in an ideal world adds both expertise and additional scrutiny to the process—but also adds time. They’re subject to debate both in committee and on the floor of each chamber—and, in the Senate, always at risk of being filibustered. At every step of the process, interest groups and lobbyists are weighing in—often behind the scenes—in a full-court press to shape or block a bill. Procedural rules offer plenty of opportunities for individual members to block progress even in the face of widespread condemnation from colleagues, as Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville has been facing for holding up military promotions and appointments. Sometimes, getting to a majority in both houses on the same piece of legislation can feel like a minor miracle, requiring negotiation, compromise, and lots of patience.
Our history offers plenty of examples. It took well over a year for the Affordable Care Act to win passage in 2010, despite strong public support for health care reform. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 faced concerted opposition from southern senators in particular, though it enjoyed the support of a majority of Americans. Immigration reform has been a perennial top-of-mind issue on Capitol Hill, with members of Congress and the public at large agreeing that it needs to happen and many on both sides of the aisle believing that undocumented immigrants need a “pathway to citizenship,” yet disagreements over how to achieve reform have stymied legislation for decades.
To be sure, Congress can act very quickly when it needs to, especially in the face of a national emergency: after 9/11, during the 2008 financial crisis, when confronted with the Covid pandemic. And in the past, even when the appropriations process to fund the federal government has hit snags, Congress has been able to move quickly to pass a continuing resolution or an omnibus spending bill to avert a shutdown.
But when both Congress and the nation are polarized and Congress itself is closely divided along partisan lines, everything becomes more difficult. This is especially so in the House these days, where, as we’ve seen, just a tiny handful of members can gum things up and the GOP speaker faces the constant prospect of losing his post if even a single member of his caucus decides to give it a shot. In other words, the potential for messiness, gridlock, and obstruction has reached new heights this year.
Yet despite all this, there’s one other key thing to remember: When it comes to its most important business, like passing appropriations bills and funding the government, Congress always comes through. Debate might be contentious and every so often we face a shutdown—with all the disruption and political fallout that entails—but eventually every department will get its funds. Given all the forces arrayed against making progress, that’s no small feat.