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U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) talks to members of the media on June 27, 2019, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Congress has somehow found itself in the same situation it was in last year.

In a striking moment of déjà vu, a government shutdown is once again imminent, should Congress fail to pass 12 funding bills by the end of this week.

Things thus far have looked quite promising. Although Congress has already pushed its funding deadline by twice passing continuing resolutions, House and Senate lawmakers said last week that they reached an agreement “in principle.” The deal includes a total of $1.37 trillion in funding for agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, as well as Congress itself. These bills would keep the government funded though the end of September 2020.

But, per usual, there are some last-minute hiccups still being worked out.

Lawmakers are set to roll out specifics on Monday, including an update on how much is allocated to President Donald Trump’s most-prioritized line item: a wall along the southern border. According to the New York Times’s Emily Cochran, border construction is expected to receive $1.375 billion in funding, the same amount that was allocated to fencing last year. Trump has not yet signaled where he stands on the measure.

Congress is also eyeing other additions to the funding bill, which has previously been used to pass ancillary legislative priorities. Roll Call reported that this year’s package could feature a number of riders, including one that raises the age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 and another that extends Medicaid funding to US territories, including Puerto Rico.

According to a House aide, Democrats have also secured additional funds for a series of priorities, including a boost to early childhood education, $25 million for gun violence research, and an additional $550 million for federal child-care funding, the last of which was pushed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Pending potential interference from Trump, who forced the longest government shutdown in history last year in order to strong-arm funding for a border wall, lawmakers are on track to approve either this agreement or another short-term bill to keep the government open before it adjourns for the holiday recess. House Democrats could potentially vote on the spending bills as early as Tuesday, NBC News reported.

There’s a lot of anticipation around this particular funding discussion, since it’s taking place one year after the start of last year’s stunning government shutdown, which saw hundreds of thousands of federal workers furloughed for weeks without pay. The vote is also slated to take place even as the House debates articles of impeachment against Trump.

This time last year, lawmakers were trying to hammer out an agreement about government funding, only for talks to break down and result in an impasse that lasted for 35 days. Lawmakers seem to have made more progress this year, but if it feels like this same dynamic keeps repeating itself, that’s because it is.

The shutdown loop, explained

The ongoing will-they-won’t-they dynamic surrounding government shutdowns is a relatively recent one that began in the 1980s. At the time, then-Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti developed a new interpretation of a law from the 1880s called the Antideficiency Act. This law effectively banned the government from using funds that have not been appropriated by Congress, forcing it to shut down if it’s not given the money to keep on operating.

Prior to 1980, government officials believed the law meant that agencies could stay open even during funding gaps so long as they curbed their expenditures. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews has explained, the first few shutdowns didn’t actually mean the federal government ground to a halt. Civiletti, however, issued two opinions establishing that agencies needed to broadly cease operations when funding hadn’t been approved, unless it was absolutely necessary for them to keep working.

Since then, the US government has shut down 15 times, including those last year. There are a couple of different reasons this keeps on happening.

While spending bills are seen as a must-pass item in Congress, they’re also subject to lawmakers’ habit of procrastinating on legislation until the last minute. As partisanship has grown, they’ve also increasingly been treated as leverage in political fights, including when Trump used his demands for a border wall to hold up passage of a funding bill. (It’s worth noting that his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful and that he had to declare a national emergency to get the funds he wanted.) Despite the fallout they cause, politicians haven’t historically been penalized for shutdowns at the ballot box, meaning they aren’t deterred from engaging in them again.

This year, Congress seems focused on avoiding the outcome it experienced last year, with a goal of maintaining government operations and ensuring that federal workers and contractors continue to get paid. By passing the 2020 funding bills later this week, lawmakers can guarantee that the same scenario doesn’t repeat itself.

Author: Li Zhou

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