Tomorrow morning, several hundred thousand employees of the US federal government will return to work. Aside from the politics of the moment, the federal government shutdown is in many respects the product of the US Constitution, and in particular the principle of the separation of powers which ensures that power is not concentrated in the hands of any one branch of government but is shared between the executive (the President), the legislature (Congress) and the judiciary (the Supreme Court). This means that the various branches of government need to work together in order to ensure that legislation is passed, treaties are ratified and budgets approved. Unfortunately, if the various branches of government can’t agree then the system breaks down. In the case of the recent shutdown, the Republicans, who control the lower house of Congress – the House of Representatives – failed to approve the federal budget before the end of the US fiscal year on 30 September, with the result that there was no money available to keep the federal government running. As a result a large proportion of the 7 million employees of the federal government were told to stay at home without pay. This included non-essential staff from a diverse range of services from the Pentagon to the National Parks. Tourists were prevented from visiting sites such the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and the Statue of Liberty in New York, although the latter reopened late last week when the City of New York agreed to foot the bill. Perhaps more significantly groups like armed services veterans didn’t receive their benefits cheques and offices responsible for monitoring environmental and public health closed. This was a wide-ranging and significant halt to services not just in Washington but across the USA, and the situation was compounded by the fact that no-one, aside perhaps from a small group of Republicans in Congress, was in a position to predict when services might be resumed.
A similar shutdown in the UK, where the state provides a much wider range of services, would be catastrophic but is also highly unlikely, not because British politics is any less polarised than in the US, but because in the UK the government generally gets its way. Unlike in the US, where the executive and the legislature are elected separately and may therefore be controlled by different parties, in the UK the executive is drawn from the largest party in the lower house of the legislature, with the result that the Prime Minister retains control of the House of Commons. Although the size of the government’s majority may dictate the government’s freedom of manoevre they are unlikely to be frustrated on a daily basis or blocked entirely as the Republicans have done to Obama in the House of Representatives. If the Government were to lose a vote on the budget this would likely trigger a confidence vote and a general election long before the money ran out to keep services going. One possible source of such a brake on executive power is the House of Lords, which was, until recently, dominated by the Conservatives, and in which no party now holds a majority. The Lords is therefore, in a position to frustrate the government’s legislative agenda, in the way that Obama has been frustrated by a Republican controlled lower house. However, another feature of the unwritten British constitution is the Salisbury convention, an unwritten agreement whereby the House of Lords will not vote down at second or third reading a Government bill which was a manifesto commitment. Perhaps more significantly the upper house will not hold up a money bill for more than a month. While there is considerable scope for interpretation in this, not least around what constitutes a money bill, it is safe to assume that this would encompass the budget. Interestingly, reforms to the House of Lords which have enhanced its legitimacy have put a strain on the Salisbury convention in recent years. Nevertheless, as long as the Government retains control of the Commons and the Salisbury convention holds in the Lords, the kind of shutdown witnessed in the US is unlikely.
There are many reasons why all of this may be a bad thing, encapsulated in Lord Hailsham’s famous characterisation of the British system as an elective dictatorship. However, it does mean that Britain doesn’t suffer the kind of constitutional blockage witnessed in the US, and whatever is happening at Westminster, the people can generally go about their business. In conclusion, I must admit a vested interest. The last time the US federal government shutdown was in 1995. At the time I was a PhD student carrying out research at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, in Abilene, Kansas in the American mid-West. When the government shutdown, the library closed and I was left twiddling my thumbs with no idea when the library would reopen. Abilene is a nice place, and the people are lovely, but aside from the Greyhoud Hall of Fame, the Eisenhower Library really is the only attraction. I eventually cut my losses and flew back to the UK, saving enough of my meagre research grant to return at a later date. My perception of the whole episode wasn’t enhanced when I later discovered that at precisely the moment I was kicking my heels in the mid-West, in Washington, President Bill Clinton, who in my view should have been working night and day to resolve the impasse, was enjoying himself in a White House bathroom with a young intern, there’s nothing about that in the Constitution.