Washington Update – September

With summer ending and Congress back in session, lawmakers only have a handful of legislative days to avert a potential government shutdown. It’s unlikely that a shutdown will be allowed to happen, but it is possible. More likely, Congress and the president will agree on a series of short-term funding measures that maintain current spending levels and a continuing resolution (or “CR”) that could last through the end of President Obama‘s term in office. Republicans in Congress are divided, however, over how to defund Planned Parenthood after videos were made public apparently showing potentially criminal behavior. Some Republicans lawmakers want to force a showdown with the Democrats and the White House over this issue.

A grand budget compromise is highly unlikely, although pressure is mounting on all sides to break the Budget Control Act spending caps put in place a few years ago. According to Washington insiders, we can expect the status quo to prevail this year and next for the following four reasons:

  • Congressional Republicans want to keep a lid on federal spending. Although congressional defense hawks, like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Arizona), are screaming about the damage the caps are doing to national defense, most Republicans are content to keep downward pressure on the discretionary budget. The caps, and the deficit reduction they generate, is probably Republican lawmakers’ most notable achievement. To change course now would be very risky for the entire Republican conference, whose base expects them to limit federal spending.
  • Neither the president nor congressional leaders have the power to push through an agreement. Gone, seemingly, is the ability to keep their rank-and-file in line. This is occurring in both parties, but perhaps most openly in the House of Representatives, where certain Republican members are considering actions to force House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) from his role atop leadership. No matter who the leader is these days, the followers are not following. This is not the kind of atmosphere in which budget agreements are made.
  • Greater federal spending might come at too great a political cost for the Obama Administration. Yes, Democrats want to increase federal spending, but legislation providing those funds would likely come with policy riders on issues such as Planned Parenthood, immigration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. President Obama may decide that he is unwilling to cut deals on these issues to get more dollars.
  • Lastly, whether we like it or not, we are heading into what is known in Washington, D.C. as the silly season: a presidential election year. Presidential election politics are already affecting congressional debate and actions (or lack thereof). With media attention already fixed on the many candidates for the highest office, little focus is trained on the need to fund the government. Unfortunately, budget agreements usually do not happen in a vacuum, nor are they generally crafted without a spotlight on the budgeteers. In this election season, that sort of undivided attention does not appear to be very likely. Nor does any new budget agreement.

Still we hope. As this is being written, Congress has just eight business days to get something done. And that does not take into account the day-long recess in observance of Yom Kippur. Unless congressional leaders move decisively and soon, we could be looking at a repeat of the October 2013 shutdown. Let’s hope not.

On a Related Note: A Glimpse under The Capitol Dome

On the topic of impending budget battle, the entire 46-person-strong Senate Democratic caucus sent a letter earlier this summer to the Republican leadership asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Kentucky) to schedule “immediate” budget negotiations “to avoid a manufactured crisis in the fall.” From the letter: “There are less than two months left in the fiscal year, and we are deeply concerned by the fact that negotiations to craft a bipartisan budget agreement have not yet begun. With the end of the fiscal year looming, we urge you to immediately schedule bipartisan budget negotiations so that we can work together over the coming weeks to avoid another manufactured crisis…. We are ready and willing to work with you to produce a fair and balanced Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. Therefore, we respectfully request you schedule the first round of these important negotiations as soon as possible.”

In response, the majority leader’s spokesman blasted Democrats for holding spending bills up from floor consideration: “We wrote back to the staffers who sent the letter and got ‘out of office’ replies from both. But it’s important to note that Congress is already engaged in negotiations: Under new leadership, the Appropriations Committee for the first time in nine years passed all appropriations bills-most with Democrat support. But Democrats are refusing to allow a floor debate on the spending bills-going so far as to filibuster a pay raise for the troops.”