Do other democracies ever suffer “shutdowns” of their governments due to failure to agree on a budget? I would offer a tentative “no”, at least in recent decades, because most political systems either have mechanisms forcing a change in government or a new election (in the case of parliamentary systems) or provisions that define a “reversion” other than (essentially, though not literally) zero.
As Erik Voeten, writing at the Monkey Cage, noted the case of Belgium, which in 2010 and 2011 was without a democratically legitimated government for 589 days. “Yet, budgets were passed, government workers were paid, and government services continued to be provided.”
In many other presidential systems (including those of many US states), the powers of the president include provisions to establish limits on what the congress can amend in budgets, and/or privilege the executive proposal in some way. Others–both presidential and parliamentary–have provisions for what would be, in Washington parlance, “automatic continuing resolutions”.
These various provisions would seem to make anything like what has happened this week in the USA–the eighteenth such incident since 1976–unlikely or even impossible.
Gary Cox, also at the Monkey Cage, offers an overview of the different sorts of rules used elsewhere to prevent shutdowns. He has a graph indicating the increased use around the world of what he terms, executive-favoring reversions. He also argues that the reversionary provision in place in the USA, whereby budgets go to zero until there is continuing or renewed authorization, is the “worst” kind “except for all the rest.”
I don’t agree with this argument. Normatively, it seems desirable to keep things going at the most recently approved levels until such time as all who are needed to agree can come up with some new level. Or so it seems to me. I also disagree with Cox’s point that “parliamentary regimes avoid the inefficiencies of government shutdowns, at the price of government instability.” As Gary certainly knows, actual government instability is by no means the norm in parliamentary systems. And that is so even if we replace the rather loaded term, “instability” by the rather more descriptive, (low) “cabinet durability”. Yet I don’t think failure to pass a budget is all that common in parliamentary systems, precisely because the consequences are substantial. But when it happens, there is the dual response of (1) an automatic continuing resolution (caretaker provisions) and (2) either a newly formed government or an early election. ((As in recent Dutch experience.)) These are not small points for the broader point Cox is addressing.
In all the online discussion occurring about the comparative politics of these matters (which is great to see, by the way!), Max Fisher makes reference to the Australian crisis of 1975 as a case of “shutdown”. He suggests it was only due to Australia’s continued acceptance of the British monarchy that the particular solution–the Governor General firing the Prime Minister when the latter could not obtain supply in the Senate–was possible. I am not sure about the specifics of his interpretation ((Some readers of this blog know the case well!)), but I would note that recourse to government replacement–and often, early elections– are inherent to parliamentary models, whether in the Commonwealth or not. Presidential systems, on the other hand, must either endure periodic deadlocks or have other constitutional or statutory mechanisms for giving privilege over budgets to either the executive, the congress, or the status-quo levels of spending. And it is probably safe to say that all currently active presidential constitution that are newer than the US–which is to say all of them–have differentiated budgets from ordinary legislation precisely to generate a reversionary outcome other than a shutdown.