Vanderbilt expert on what to expect when you’re expecting a government shutdown

Bruce Oppenheimer (Vanderbilt University)

Congress has given itself until Dec. 22 to produce a new budget, but Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science, says that’s not a guarantee that a deal will be made. Here’s what he’s going to be watching for:

How long will Congress drag this out?

If Congress can’t come to an agreement by the 22nd, legislators may be tempted to try to avoid a shutdown by passing another continuing resolution to keep the government open while negotiations continue. Oppenheimer said this has its risks—especially if they give themselves too much time. “The shorter a continuing resolution, the easier it is to keep people on board without having to add all kinds of extras,” he said. “The longer it goes, the more ‘gimmes’ get tacked on, and that makes it even harder to come to an agreement.”

There are pros and cons to buying more time, Oppenheimer said, noting that a looming deadline is sometimes the best way for individual legislators or caucuses to push pet projects or unpopular provisions through. “When you’ve got a bill you have to pass, people tend to try to hold things hostage,” he said.

Taking more time gives Republicans more time to build consensus among their own party, but it also means the risk of having to make an unpalatable last-minute deal with Democrats if their votes still come up short. “The more the Republicans concede to the Freedom Caucus’ demands, the less likely Democrats will sign on,” he said. “In that case, the price (of passage) may have to be to keep auxiliary issues out, such as funding for the border wall.”

However, Oppenheimer said, the Republicans also face the extra challenge of ensuring that the budget doesn’t undermine any promises they made to pass their tax bill. “For example, there are commitments to Senator Collins that senators need to include,” he said.

The government shuts down. Whose fault is it?

History suggests voters will place the blame on congressional Republicans, said Oppenheimer, as they did during the shutdowns under Clinton and Obama. This was true both when Congress failed to pass a budget on time, as it did under Obama, and when Congress was unable to override Clinton’s veto.

What’s more interesting this time around is that there’s a unified government—meaning the blame could potentially fall to Trump if he doesn’t like the deal congressional Republicans made. “If the budget doesn’t have funding for the border wall, will Trump veto it? And if he does, will he be blamed for it?”

Nobody wants to be a Grinch

However Congress ends up trying to pass the budget, legislators are likely to do their best to avoid a Christmas shutdown, Oppenheimer said. “One, it’s hard to get enough representatives to come back during the holidays to resolve it; and two, it’s such a slow media season that the shutdown will be the only story in Washington,” he said. “Besides, they don’t want to be blamed for ruining the holidays.”