Will the Last One Out Please Turn Off the Lights?

A few hours before this posting, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) stopped talking. Why is that worth noting? Because his speech had begun 21 hours, 19 minutes earlier. Technically, it wasn’t a filibuster, but even if had been, Senator Cruz would have fallen short of the late Senator Strom Thurmond’s record of 24 hours, 18 minutes.

No matter, it was all a prelude to the high drama and brinksmanship we’ve come to expect this time of year.

Senator Cruz’s marathon talk was spawned by a House-passed bill intended to avert a shutdown when the government’s fiscal year ends at midnight September 30. Called a continuing resolution, or CR, the House measure would provide stop-gap funding through December 15. For good measure the bill also blocks implementation of the Affordable Care Act—something Senate Democrats and President Obama said they can’t abide.

The CR is necessary because, true to form, Congress has yet to pass any of its annual appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year. Without an enacted spending bill or stop-gap CR funding, government agencies have to shut down.

Well, not completely. Activities deemed to be “essential services” would continue. Public safety programs—those tied to law enforcement, air traffic control and border security—would continue operating.

Mandatory programs, i.e. those not dependent on annual congressional appropriations, also would continue, but often at a slower pace. For example, Social Security checks would continue to flow, but federal workers who enroll new beneficiaries or handle inquiries from existing enrollees would be furloughed.

If government indeed shuts down—and it looks as though it will—it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Since 1976, on 17 occasions government has experienced a funding gap of one day or more. About half of those occurred over a weekend, so they caused minimal disruption. But the mother of all shutdowns, beginning in late 1995, turned the lights out twice for a total of 26 days. The world didn’t end, but those families that had planned vacations to national parks and monuments weren’t happy.

So here we are again. The Senate is expected to strip out the health care reform prohibition and pass a “clean” CR, probably this weekend. The House will likely reject it…and we’re back to square one.

We’ll let you know what happens. Oh, and forget what I said about the lights. If we don’t pay the bill, they’ll be turned off anyway.

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