Back In Session

Laura Blessing | September 11, 2019

Congress is back in session, and all eyes are on the impending budget negotiations.  The past month has not provided a respite from significant news.  A number of mass shootings, border developments, and the clattering of the 2020 presidential aspirants reminds us that while Congress may have escaped the Potomac’s heat, the world does not wait.  As Congress gears up to address its budget responsibilities, it’s worth considering how we got here, the current state of play, and where we’re going—as well as the other items that beg legislative deliberation.

Congress left town having just passed a budget agreement into law on August 2 that achieved a number of significant items.  This law raised the last two years of the budget caps, giving appropriators and all legislators much needed room to maneuver, avoiding $126 billion in automatic spending cuts (roughly divided between FY2020 and FY2021), and lifting the debt ceiling until July 2021.  By raising funding for both domestic and military programs, this deal appeased all but the hardline fiscal conservatives, the largest block to vote against the bill.  Notably, the Trump Administration retreated from its position of significant cuts to domestic spending (including as a condition for raising the debt ceiling)—and, as a departure from their negotiating during the shutdown, is not aligning with the hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus, who panned the bill.

But legislators may not have given themselves as much breathing room as they would like.  A budget resolution was never passed, so there has been no agreement on the 302 (b) allocations, the amount of spending allowed for each of the twelve appropriations bills.  The House has passed ten bills (failing to move Homeland Security and the Legislative Branch appropriations), but those bills will likely need to be pared down to fit under the raised caps.  The Senate, meanwhile, has not passed any of its appropriations bills.

In addition to this arithmetic heartburn are policy headaches.  The budget agreement’s promise to not include “poison pill” policy riders that could derail the process (as they often do in appropriations) lacks both specifics and teeth.  There are a number of potential explosive issues here, with some already baked into the political state of play and others likely to arise given recent events, along with other targets of opportunity for legislators who are not in the mood to compromise.  The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (“Milcon-VA”) bill is typically one of the least contentious bills.  The Trump administration’s February announcement that it would use $3.6 billion in previously approved military construction projects to instead fund the border wall, and Defense Secretary Esper’s September 3 letter listing the defunded projects, is going to make Milcon-VA a political battleground.  Any backfilling of those defunded projects is likely to be taken as tacit support of the wall.  The deadly shootings over the summer have brought attention to gun control legislation, which could manifest in the appropriations process in a few ways, such as a focus on the Dickey amendment, which prohibits the CDC from studying gun violence.  Of course, this is hardly an exhaustive list.

Where does this leave us?  House Appropriations Chair Lowey, together with House leadership, wants a Continuing Resolution (CR) until late November to provide stopgap spending until a larger deal can be reached.  The White House has released an unusually long list of anomalies (changes from an exact continuation of current spending levels) in an attempt to enact more policy changes.  This kicks the can down the road but doesn’t provide a pathway for major decisions, especially with the record of unpredictable position-taking by the administration.

Meanwhile, concerns of an economic downturn, trade war developments, election security discussions, questions of impeachment, attempts at legislation on issues such as prescription drug prices, and the noise of the 2020 electoral machine provide a cacophonous background.  This fall, we can be assured of a CR, more nominations in the Senate, and foliage.  Everything else is up in the air.

Laura Blessing is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

Categories: Congressional Policy Issues, Congressional Update, Federal Budget and Appropriations, Federal Workforce, Media Center, Revise & Extend, Updates