Utah Sen. Mike Lee backs bill to prevent future government shutdowns; critics call it a ploy

FILE - In this Feb. 22, 2018, file photo, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks on the Senate Floor at the Utah state Capitol in Salt Lake City. President Donald Trump's list of candidates for the Supreme Court, posted on White House website in November 2017 includes Lee. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee joined several fellow Republicans on Friday to introduce legislation that would automatically fund the government if Congress fails to pass a budget, a measure intended to prevent shutdowns like the current closure that is likely to be the longest in American history.

Here’s the catch: If Congress doesn’t pass a budget, the government remains funded but spending will be cut by 1 percent after the first 120 days and then 1 percent every 90 days until there’s a spending plan passed and signed by the president.

In essence, without congressional action, government budgets will be slashed little by little, a move long cheered by Lee, R-Utah, and conservatives.

Lee, whose effort to defund Obamacare in 2013 helped lead to a 16-day government shutdown, pitched the bill as a way to stop the budget-by-crisis approach Congress has used in recent years. The current government closure is the second in the past year.

“Shutdowns are not a responsible way to govern,” Lee said in a statement. “They create instability and unpredictability not only in our government, but also for the many families and businesses that interact with the federal government.”

Lee added that the bill, whose main sponsor is Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, “strikes a necessary balance between incentivizing good budgeting habits while discouraging last-minute, haphazard stopgap funding measures. And it provides stability and predictability without allowing Congress to pat ourselves on the back for averting a self-made crisis.”

Portman has introduced the same measure in the Senate for several sessions. It has yet to get a floor vote.

Budget experts quickly dismissed the proposal as a public relations gimmick, given Congress often uses the budget negotiations as a bargaining chip to get their pet legislation through.

“It’s all self serving P.R.,” said Stan Collender, a budget guru who worked for Democrats on both the House and Senate budget committees. The bill, he said, “has no chance of passing whatsoever.”

Portman, however, said the measure would save the government money and help the economy, which suffers every time there’s a shutdown.

“Shutdowns inevitably cost taxpayers more money once the government reopens,” Portman said, adding he wants the shutdown to end soon.

“Moving forward, we should end government shutdowns for good,” Portman said. “This bipartisan legislation will accomplish that goal, providing lawmakers with more time to reach a responsible resolution to budget negotiations, giving federal workers and their families more stability, and ensuring we avoid disruptions that ultimately hurt our economy, taxpayers and working families.”