By No Labels
Like a college freshman, Congress has put off the tough work to the last minute. Now, it is faced with finding a solution to complicated immigration issues and a compromise on spending — all before a Jan. 19 deadline that threatens to shut down the government unless Congress acts.
Ever wonder how a group of savvy professionals wound up in this predicament? The answer lies in a cycle of delay and crisis management that has played out several times in recent years and has taken hold again now. In simple terms, here’s how Congress got here.
While much of the federal budget is mandatory spending like Social Security and Medicare, Republicans and Democrats often disagree over the priorities for the discretionary spending they control. This year, for example, Republicans want increases in defense spending and Democrats demanded a dollar-for-dollar match in the form of increased domestic spending. The two sides have thus far failed to reach a compromise. Of course, it is no easy task reaching consensus on the fate of hundreds of billions or dollars. And so, the process often drags — often past the deadlines.
The government requires budgeting and appropriations to be complete when it starts its fiscal year Oct. 1. Like all businesses, the government cannot operate without money. Without funding, the government has to shut down, which is a costly and damaging process. However, Congress can pass a stopgap measure known as a “continuing resolution” (CR), which keeps the government operating at the previous year’s funding levels.
Rather than passing timely budgets, Congress has come to rely on the CR. Since 1999, it has averaged at least 5 continuing resolutions per year, according to a General Accounting Office report. It passed several in 2017 as negotiations dragged on. The latest, passed in December, set the Jan. 19 deadline. Without a spending bill, or another CR, the government will shut down.
Eventually, Congress must pass a spending bill for the coming year — and must-pass legislation attracts other issues as lawmakers tack on policies they care about. These additions, while often important pieces of legislation, can weigh down the negotiations. For example, in exchange for support on the spending bill, Democrats have said Congress must protect the 800,000 young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” from deportation. In turn, Republicans have insisted on enhanced border security. President Trump has demanded funding for a border wall. He also supports an end to the lottery and “chain migration” systems, which allows immigrants who have become citizens to help family members. Now, the budget debate has morphed into a complex negotiation over immigration.
Meanwhile, there are some funding issues that were not addressed by the CR, and may themselves require negotiation. Two examples are funding for disaster relief and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. There is broad general agreement that these issues must be addressed, but lawmakers differ on the details. It makes the entire negotiation more complicated.
Lawmakers are actively negotiating, with just days to go before a shutdown. There have been some highs and some lows. A bipartisan group of senators has released a compromise plan that addresses Dreamers, chain and lottery migration, border security — it even contains some funding for a wall. But thus far, it has received a cool early reception from Trump and some key Republicans in Congress. Meanwhile, Bloomberg is reporting that Congress is preparing another CR to accommodate negotiations over budget numbers and immigration.