By Joshua C. Huder
Three months into the 2018 fiscal year, Congress and the President have yet to finalize a budget deal. Delayed funding of government is not new to this Congress or its predecessors. Similar debates about how much to raise the Budget Control Act (BCA) caps (commonly referred to as sequester) occurred in 2013 and 2015, and Republican and Democratic leaders were able to hash out deals and move on. But this time, things are different. A combination of unified Republican control of government and a pattern of irresponsible non-legislating makes this a much different budget debate.
The part of the 2018 budget negotiation that actually deals with substantial money is basically over. Leaders appear to agree on the funding level boost for executive agencies, which since early December has remained relatively stable at around $54 billion for defense and nondefense discretionary spending. This gives the President the defense increase he requested, while Democrats get parity with nondefense spending.
Ironically, these numbers are basically the same as the FY2018 House Democratic Budget blueprint. They also represent a big increase over previous budget deals. The 2013 and 2015 agreements increased the caps by roughly $30 billion. This new emerging deal appears likely to break the caps by an additional $20+ billion. In other words, a Republican Congress will ultimately fund government at much higher levels than the divided governments did in 2013 and 2015.
Part of the reason for the massive spending increase under Republican control is structural. The BCA completely reorients budget negotiations, basically turning winners into losers. The BCA can only be amended with a supermajority in the Senate, essentially turning the budget process – a majoritarian process in Congress – into a bipartisan process requiring 60-votes. This gives enormous leverage to the minority party. Ironically, winning the majority is one of the worst things that can happen to a party’s budget.
The other part is political. House Republicans’ refusal to vote for any bill appearing to increase spending undermines their leverage. Republican leaders are, and have been, forced to rely on Democrats to pass budget deals even in the House. Republicans’ inability to move spending bills out of either chamber means they shoulder all the blame for a shutdown. So not only are Democrats dramatically increasing spending as the political minority in Congress, they also are to drag other issues into the budget debate.
The irony is this budget deal isn’t really about the budget. The deal is about immigration and health care. Congressional Republicans spent most of 2017 pushing two major bills: ACA repeal and tax reform. The collateral damage of that focus was losing effective stewardship over existing programs. Extensions for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) were put on hold. And now that must-pass legislation has arrived in the form of governing funding, lawmakers attach programs requiring attention to the moving legislative vehicle. In short, Republicans’ failure to address existing programs has come back to haunt them. These riders have complicated negotiations even more than usual.
The simple way to avoid the problem of having to simultaneously deal with reauthorizing programs and government spending would have been to reauthorize these programs earlier. However, the chambers have become so leader-driven that Congress cannot effectively multitask. A bipartisan fix for ACA insurance payments was crafted by Senators Alexander (R-TN) and Murray (D-WA) but has not received floor time. The FAA reauthorization has stalled in the House. DACA and CHIP remain unresolved issues, creating uncertainty for millions of beneficiaries. Instead of addressing these issues earlier, leaders packed the schedule with easily passed messaging bills, or in the case of the Senate, easily confirmable judges and executive branch nominees. Congressional capacity under Ryan and McConnell’s leadership has become so limited that Congress has ignored its basic and most critical legislative responsibilities in favor of passing big policy goals.
The huge spending numbers and the addition of tangential issues make the FY2018 budget debate a different animal than its 2013 and 2015 predecessors. This negotiation is much more complex. And it’s turned a budget deal that appears done – at least in terms of agreed upon numbers – into yet another shutdown crisis. Unfortunately, Republicans only have themselves to blame.