Congress and the Coming Budget ‘Punt’ You Can Count On

Why the Republican-dominated Congress isn’t going to pass the appropriations bills we need to actually run the government.

WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 14:  Workers work on an elevator shaft in front of the U.S. Capitol during construction of The Capitol Visitor Center December 14, 2004 in Washington, DC. The new center will include space for security, exhibits, food services, two orientation theaters, an auditorium, gift shops, a service tunnel for truck loading and deliveries, mechanical facilities and storage.   (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 14: Workers work on an elevator shaft in front of the U.S. Capitol during construction of The Capitol Visitor Center December 14, 2004 in Washington, DC. The new center will include space for security, exhibits, food services, two orientation theaters, an auditorium, gift shops, a service tunnel for truck loading and deliveries, mechanical facilities and storage. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

They’re back!

“Who?” you ask. Why, Congress, of course.

Yes, those do-nothing, ne’er-do-wells who represent us in Washington, D.C., are back at work this week. You’ve likely forgotten them in all the noise of the presidential race cacophony — the Republican clown car, Donald Trump’s bluster, the onslaught of “what email did Hillary write now” and “how fast is Bernie rising” headlines — that has given journalists, who might otherwise be on much-needed vacations, something to write about in the doldrums of August.

“Why do they even bother?” you may ask. Damn good question. Because this returning Congress has huge reasons to do the nation’s work, but precious little incentive to get down to it. The first, and arguably the most important, order of business should be passing the bills that will allow the government to keep running after the fiscal year ends in about three weeks. So far, the Republican congressional leadership that swore it would get down to the regular order of business once Republicans controlled both houses, has not moved one of the 12 pending appropriations bills through the floor. I’m betting the outcome of this stalemate on funding is going to be “a punt” – which, in this case, will be passing something that keeps the government open, but is not a real plan with priorities and will only fund the government at the same level as this year, FY2015.

Oh, yes, Congress passed something called a “budget” last spring. But this was actually not a law that provided any detailed spending plan, program-by-program or agency-by-agency, or provided any real money. It was simply a “budget resolution.” The “resolution” stage of the congressional budget process simply provides a top-line guidance or ceiling for what total spending should be, once Congress gets down to the business of actually providing funding. You can’t spend a nickel based on a budget resolution.

But saying the resolution is the government’s “budget” just proves what Abe Lincoln reportedly said: “You can fool some of the people all of the time.” It makes good rhetoric for those who want to say “we passed a budget” in the face of years of accusations that they had not passed one — and for years. The real challenge for the Republican majority, and the real issue, is whether they can pass the actual money legislation — those 12 pesky appropriations bills.

Those appropriations bills that the Republican-dominated Congress faces this month — the real money — are how we really fund what the government does. Appropriations happen every year; they always do. Somehow Congress manages to provide the funds. When Congress doesn’t, the government shuts down. It won’t surprise you to learn it will have a deucedly hard time passing those bills by the end of the month.

Bottom line: It won’t pass those appropriations bills. Instead of making the trade-offs and finding compromises, Congress will continue to be tied up in knots, the way it has been for the last six years, at least, about an agreed upon funding plan and the money that would allow the government to function.

Congress is looking at three budgetary doors this month: Pass the appropriations bills by Oct. 1. Or don’t pass them, and allow the government to shut down until political pressure builds later to cut a deal. Or the path of least resistance — “punt,” (or, as Washingtonians like to say, “boot the decision to the right” — that is, provide something in the interim while postponing the hard decisions to the “right” time) by passing something called a “continuing resolution.” Here’s betting Door No. 3 is the one that gets opened, with real consequences for the way the government will operate for the next year.

Speaker John Boehner has already admitted that Congress won’t pass the 12 appropriations bills. Two reasons: 1) There is not enough time, with only 10 actual scheduled working days in Congress before the end of the fiscal year; and 2) There’s not enough agreement among Republicans on things like Planned Parenthood funding, confederate flags in the national parks, and trying, yet again, to kill the Affordable Care Act, or between the parties on the level of defense and domestic spending. Door No. 1 is locked, and everybody knows it.

So move on to Door No. 2: a shut down. Some folks, like budget guru Stan Collender, think that Congress is most likely to let ‘er rip and shut down the government on Oct. 1, rather than make the political and spending compromises that would let bills pass. The reason: The Republicans won’t be able to unify on those divisive issues, and the Tea Party wins by default — no agreement, no money.

He could be right, because some in Congress would rather have a good political fight over the existence of the federal government (you can guess which Republican faction holds this view) than allow it to function. And the president has repeatedly made it clear he does not like the balance between defense and non-defense funding in the bills (they follow the Republican budget resolution ceilings, not the ones he proposed last February in his budget request, even though both the request and the resolution would increase the defense budget). In the Senate, the Democrats have just enough leverage (the bills need 60 votes to pass and the Republicans only have 54) to keep the spending bills they don’t like off the floor.

So a shutdown, an event we have experienced several times since the mid-1990s, may be the outcome at the end of the month. I am betting this won’t happen because, ultimately, a shutdown does not help Republicans convince the public they can actually govern, rather than just oppose “government.” The Republicans have been politically damaged each time they shut down the government — in 1995, 1996, and 2013.

Electorally, this issue could matter a lot next year. There are 24 Republican Senate seats up for grab versus just 10 Democratic seats. While the House may not change hands (due to the marriage of big money and gerrymandering putting most seats out of contention), the Republican majority could narrow, and shutting down the government could be the reason.

I’m betting on Door No. 3 — the continuing resolution “punt.” It’s what Congress does best. (Its motto could be: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”) Pass a continuing resolution, and wait for the political pressure toward compromise to build a bit. In an act of true political courage, some folks are even talking about passing a continuing resolution that would last through all of the next fiscal year. What’s the advantage of that? Well, it would allow the political campaign to run its course and see who wins. Then whoever is president could set his or her own priorities in a new budget and, potentially, pass them through a more willing Congress. It’s called “betting on the come,” a gambling term meaning playing as if winnings in the future are a sure thing.

There is a “cat door” in the middle of Door No. 3 — something that might sneak through during the discussions after a continuing resolution is passed. Instead of the funding the Republicans want and the president has asked for, there might, down toward December, be a smaller agreement, very much like what Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray did in 2013. Raise defense spending a little above the currently legislated cap for a couple of years; do the same for domestic spending. This is the fiscal equivalent of getting the hell outta Dodge, accomplished by slightly tweaking the caps in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

This might happen because, for governing purposes, punting is a real problem. A yearlong continuing resolution resolves none of the budget disagreements between the political parties — it typically provides funding at the same level agencies had in the previous fiscal year, since nobody can agree on changes in the budget levels. But this makes it hard to start new programs (or kill old ones); the continuing resolution changes no priorities. And, of course, for defense, a yearlong continuing resolution would not provide the $38 billion more the president asked for (while seeking an increase in domestic spending, as well) or the $38 billion for defense that Congress put into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO or “war”) budget (while cutting domestic spending). That OCO budget is outside those pesky budget caps; it is bad budgeting, and something the president has said he will veto). So to “boot the budget disagreement to the right” and still get slightly higher numbers, the two sides might agree to another “tweak” to the Budget Control Act.

Even a tweak, however, leaves both the congressional Republicans and the Democratic administration with less for defense than their OCO funds or the original budget request asked for. The Pentagon is going to have to do some fancy dancing to deal with the gap; it needs to start planning for it now.

This budgetary outcome will do nothing to weaken the notion that Congress has been riddled with partisan fractures, unable to create a coherent fiscal plan, and has failed at its fiscal task for more than six years. In the end, really dealing with the budget dilemmas may wait for 2017 and, even then, the partisan fight is likely to still be with us. We may be “betting on the come” for years.

JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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