The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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September 30, 2013

Should founders share blame for budget gridlock?

WASHINGTON — OK, gridlocked politicians we're used to. But why padlock the Statue of Liberty?

You don't see other democracies shuttering landmarks and sending civil servants home just because their political parties can't get along. Belgian civil servants, for example, carried on nicely for a year and a half while their politicians bickered over forming a new government.

The potential for a partial shutdown is a quirk of American history. So if you're bored with blaming House Republicans or President Barack Obama, you can lay some responsibility on the Founding Fathers.

Or blame President Jimmy Carter for his rectitude. Or ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his hissy fit over how he exited Air Force One.

A history of government shutdowns, American-style:

1789: Balance of powers

The framers of the Constitution gave Congress control over spending as a way to limit the power of the presidency. The government can only spend money "in consequence of appropriations made by law," or in other words, after Congress says so and with the president's signature.

1800s: Power struggles

Turns out it's not easy to shoo federal bureaucrats away from the piggy bank.

When they wanted to spend more than Congress gave, the War Department and other agencies ordered stuff on credit. Then they would go to Congress seeking an appropriation to pay the bills. Lawmakers felt obliged to cover the government's debts, but they weren't happy about it. The executive branch was undermining Congress's power of the purse.

Congress responded with a series of laws that eventually got one of those dreadful Washington monikers: the Anti-Deficiency Act.

Because of the act, officials who mistakenly spend money Congress hasn't OK'd face disciplinary action, ranging from firing to hours stuck in mind-numbing budget training. There are exceptions for spending to protect lives or property.

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