Entering the last three to four months of this first session of the 114th Congress we see no shortage of important work to be done and we naturally ask what will get done.
The budget year, FY 2015, ends on September 30th and Congress has until then to set the FY 2016 budget. To do so requires the passage of about 24 bills; 12 authorizing programs and spending amounts for each of the federal agencies and 12 appropriating funds for those agencies.
Authorization and appropriation bills are introduced in the House although the Senate sometimes introduces its own and any differences from the House bills would be worked out in conference with the House.
Congress so far this year has only passed an appropriation bill for Homeland Security. Other bills passed out of committee and intended for the floor in the House were not introduced to the floor as House Speaker Boehner concluded that other issues such as opposition to funding for Planned Parenthood were strong enough that the underlying bill would not have the votes to pass.
An unfinished budget at the eleventh hour is not uncommon and Congress has two options to deal with it; put forth an omnibus bill that contains the rest of the appropriation bills not yet debated or pass a continuing resolution (CR) that usually funds the agencies at the FY 2015 levels with some increases of decreases included. An omnibus is to be avoided because it exposes only a small group of legislators to lobbying pressure and is so enormous, thousands of pages, that the regular order of amending the bill becomes a challenge.
Of course the budget is about money and that money comes mostly from the Treasury which is the next problem Congress must face in October or November; raising the borrowing limit so the government can meet its obligations. We can expect resistance to any raise in the limits which, historically, has been based on an ideological issue holding up the works and possibly leading to a government shutdown.
Congress also has to make a decision on the 40 or 50 tax breaks first known as the Bush tax breaks after the former President. Neither Party wants to take tax breaks away, especially when the economy is gaining strength but the underside of those breaks is that tax breaks in the federal budget are considered spending (if you use money that is there you are spending. If you take away money that could be spent that is also considered spending because it reduces revenues.) Those breaks, if completely implemented, would add some $800 billion to the deficit unless the breaks are offset by revenues or cuts elsewhere. That is where the point of contention between the Parties has been for the past three years.
Adding to this complicated budget scenario is the battle for an extremely austere spending cap desired by Republicans at around $984 billion and that of the Democrats who would spend around $1.2 trillion. The budget agreement of two years ago set by Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan struck a middle ground between those numbers but the compromised amount still does not sit well with a significant number of Republicans.
Finally, there is the sequester. To keep the record straight the sequester came about as a negotiating point between the White House and the US House. It was intended to require cuts so severe no one would want them and so would find more palatable cuts. The solution to the impending sequester was a super committee charged with finding enough spending cuts to put in place and thereby avoid the sequester. The super committee met a couple of times, it is reported, but never proposed the necessary cuts allowing the sequester to exist. Sequester looms heavy this Fall. Most committee chairs suffer from and lament its existence but no one seems to have an idea of what to do about it.
If this week’s machinations over disapproving the Iran nuclear deal are any indication, we can expect that significant legislation normally stalled by one party opposing the bill are regularly being stopped in the House by elements of the same party that introduced the bill.
Quotes on the Issues
2:17:21 P.M. September 10, 2015 – The Speaker laid before the House a message from the President transmitting a notification stating that the emergency with respect to the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, is to continue in effect for an additional year – referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs and ordered to be printed (H. Doc. 114-58).
“This is a pivotal time for Afghans and for Americans. The Afghan government is making progress, and the Afghan military is growing more capable. They face challenges that would prove daunting to any government, and it is in America’s national security interest to support them. I am convinced that we have come too far together to withdraw from Afghanistan now. As President Obama considers what residual presence should endure after 2016, he must consider how much has been gained and what we stand to lose if we withdraw too quickly.” Rep. Mac Thornberry, Chair, House Armed Services Committee.
The funding for the bank was not brought to the floor allowing the funding to lapse.
“Boeing Co.’s planned layoffs in Southern California, announced this week, have revived concerns that the aerospace industry may suffer if Congress doesn’t renew its support for the U.S. Export-Import Bank… The expiration of the Export-Import Bank charter was one of the key reasons given by Boeing on Tuesday to explain the layoffs, expected to number in the hundreds. Aerospace and satellite industry players were quick to lament what they said could be a ripple effect… Some Boeing subcontractors said reauthorizing funds for the bank is crucial to keeping U.S. businesses competitive in the global marketplace, where international rivals sometimes rely on similar support from their own governments.” [Los Angeles Times, 8/27/15]
Action on the Federal Budget Process
“Ryan-Murray was an agreement that was reached. So, we have a template to pursue, and I am hopeful that as early as today that Speaker Boehner will convene with Leader Pelosi and our budget leadership, Mr. Van Hollen, and others to come to an agreement so that we can ensure that the people’s government will continue uninterrupted at the beginning of this fiscal year on October 1. We have essentially seven days left to go to get this done, and we need to work hard after this week to make sure that it is done.” House Minority Whip Hoyer.
Magic Mondays with Rep. Marc Pocan (WI-2)
As we often point out in our editorials; some bills don’t do what they say and others don’t really say what they do.
Rep. Marc Pocan (WI-2nd) shows us with sleight of hand some of the sleight of hand in the legislative process!
Hamilton on Congress
This Time Was Supposed to be Different
By Lee H. Hamilton
The most important function Congress serves is to debate and pass the federal budget. I know— it also levies taxes, imposes or relaxes regulations, and once in a while nudges our social, economic or political order in a meaningful way. But the budget tells the government what to do and makes it possible to do it. Everything else follows from that.
Even at the best of times, passing a budget is a test of Congress’s abilities. And these aren’t the best of times. Its two houses are controlled by Republicans who don’t see eye to eye. The White House is in the hands of a Democratic president who really doesn’t agree with them.
So to get a budget enacted into law, everyone involved has to negotiate seriously. They have to make realistic political judgments about what’s possible. They have to compromise. Given our divided government, you’d think that everyone would step up to these challenges.
Early in the year, following the GOP’s takeover of the Senate, it seemed as though they might. Gone, at least in rhetoric, were the days of shutdowns, sequestration, and the fiscal cliff. The “regular order” of committee hearings and duly marked-up appropriations bills would be restored.
In the House, Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers accomplished something that hasn’t been managed for years: all 12 appropriations bills made it out of his committee. But that’s where the good news ended. For the bills themselves were largely political statements that had no chance of being enacted, as they contained provisions that were anathema to Democrats — including President Obama, who made it clear he had no intention of signing them.
What provisions? The appropriators voted to reverse the Affordable Care Act. They zeroed out family planning. They imposed strict rules on for-profit universities. They pulled back regulations on the environment. They resorted to long-practiced budget gimmicks: planning for faster economic growth than is defensible so they could increase projected revenues; boosting military spending then moving it off-budget, which allowed them to claim to support defense spending without actually counting it as spending.
So now Congress is headed for partisan gridlock, and the result is predictable, because we’ve seen all this play out before. Instead of the regular order, we’re once again pointed toward fiscal showdowns.
Last week, Congress gave up on securing a new round of transportation funding for the states — at the height of the summer construction season — instead announcing a three-month extension that saves the hard negotiating for the fall. A vote to raise the debt ceiling also looms in the fall. And, given the state of play, it seems inevitable that once again Congress will resort to the travesty known as a continuing resolution, which relinquishes Congress’s power of the purse by basically extending fiscal policy as it was the year before.
No member defends this way of budgeting, but they end up doing it year after year anyway, as if held hostage by their own worst inclinations. There are no serious negotiations at this point.
Which is a problem. Because to prepare a budget thoughtfully — especially when it requires negotiation with the other party — demands working through literally thousands of details. Yet we’re approaching adjournment with no serious talks to make mutually acceptable headway on the budget — though somehow Congress has found the time to take a recess, shutting down for the remainder of the summer.
So with Congress having left Washington and roughly a dozen working days once it returns to put a budget together, the delay we’re seeing means that Congress won’t actually be able to resolve the issues it faces. Congressional leaders seem fine with this. They rejected early negotiations, preferring a last-minute confrontation, which will lead to another fiscal impasse.
In other words, they’re punting. I can’t predict how long they’ll make their continuing resolution last, but with presidential elections looming, it may be longer rather than shorter. Instead of turning over a new leaf, as Congress promised it would do just seven months ago, it’s once again consigning us to fiscal chaos.
You should be angry. It’s a lousy way to do business.
Lee H. Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.