House Democrats

Congressional Appropriations in Full Swing, Sort Of, As Deadlines Loom

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

As fiscal deadlines loom, the appropriations process is now in full swing – at least in the House of Representatives.

The end of the current fiscal year is rapidly approaching and lawmakers are scrambling to avoid a breakdown in the appropriations process by reaching an agreement on topline spending levels for the next two years and to raise the debt ceiling.  

House appropriators have approved all 12 annual spending bills, with House leaders aiming to pass them out of the full chamber by the end of June. As expected, House spending legislation largely rebukes the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts and instead outlines large spending increases across the federal government. 

To speed up passage, House Democrats were planning to bundle five fiscal 2020 spending bills into a massive package for floor consideration this week. However, that package lost a leg when the Legislative Branch measure was dropped after a disagreement over a provision to raise lawmaker salaries. The House began debate today on the revised four bill package that combines the fiscal 2020 measures for Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water, and State-Foreign Operations.

The bundling decision underscored a determination by House Democratic leaders to avoid another breakdown in the appropriations process and allow enough time for negotiations with the Senate before the new fiscal year begins October 1. Just as Republicans did last year, the strategy includes combining the two biggest annual spending bills – Defense and Labor-HHS-Education. Congress was able to get those two bills, along with three others, signed into law last year before the start of fiscal 2019. 

But the strategy is hardly a cure-all. A dispute over funding for the border wall last year brought work on other spending bills to a halt and led to the longest partial government shutdown in history. And topline funding levels finalized in the ongoing bipartisan budget negotiations are unlikely to mirror the priorities of House Democrats. 

Without a bicameral budget agreement in place yet, Senate appropriators have yet to mark up any of their spending bills for fiscal 2020. Bipartisan negotiations to set funding levels for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 have stalled primarily over disagreement on the level of domestic spending and whether new spending will be offset by new revenues or cuts elsewhere. An agreement to raise spending limits is necessary to avoid severe cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending imposed by a 2011 deficit reduction law.

Senate Republican leaders met Wednesday with the White House in hopes to solidify the party’s spending strategy, but early reports suggest no agreement was reached. Part of that strategy includes deciding whether or not to couple raising the debt limit with must-pass spending legislation. The deadline to lift or suspend the debt limit is fluid, but the Treasury’s borrowing authority can likely last through October before a default.

The bottom line: A breakthrough will need to happen soon to avoid a shutdown or stopgap spending resolution come October. There are just 21 legislative days scheduled before the August recess. After which lawmakers will return to Washington with only 13 scheduled legislative days before the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

 

 

Brexit, Border Wall Throttle Leading Democracies, Delighting Putin

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Britain’s inability to negotiate an exit from the European Union and President Trump’s inability to win funding for his promised border wall have left the world’s two largest democracies in political limbo, to the apparent delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite enormous economic consequences, a smooth Brexit and an early end of the partial US government shutdown seem out of reach.

Maybe it is coincidence or a case of bad karma extending across the pond as the United States and United Kingdom find themselves in shutdown mode – with seemingly no clue how to escape, despite enormous economic consequences.

The partial federal government shutdown is simple to understand. President Trump wants $5.7 billion for a border barrier and Democrats refuse, calling it wasteful spending on an ineffective deterrent to illegal immigration.

Trump has said the budget stalemate could be resolved in 15 minutes, which is true. The Democrat-led House has passed a nearly identical spending bill to what the Senate approved unanimously last year after Trump signaled his support. Then Trump changed his mind and demanded border wall money. He has refused to budge, other than to acquiesce to a steel instead of concrete barrier.

Federal employees and contractors caught in the cross-hairs of the border wall fight have been furloughed, forced to work without pay, not paid or encouraged to find new jobs. National parks have closed, airport security lines have lengthened and farmers haven’t gotten their subsidies to compensate for losses they incurred from the Trump trade war. Pre-season forest thinning and hurricane forecasting has been disrupted. A workplace training session for Oregon lawmakers was postponed. Federal income tax refunds could be delayed. 

As bad as all that is, it may pale in comparison to Britain’s predicament. The British Parliament on Tuesday rejected the Brexit deal that took Prime Minister Theresa May two years to negotiate with her reticent European Union counterparts. The 432-202 parliamentary defeat of the May Brexit plan is the most lopsided loss for a sitting government in British history.

Britain faces a March 29 deadline to withdraw from the EU. May, who survived a no-confidence vote by her own Conservative Party last year and faces another one by an opposition party, was given until next Monday to come up with a plan.

Unlike the US government shutdown that is stuck on a single issue, the UK is trying to disengage from an alliance. It is similar to a state like California trying to secede from the United States.

May faces a Rubix Cube of options, none of which is very promising. EU leaders have shown little inclination to grant further concessions to Britain. Asking the British people to vote a second time on Brexit risks having a second vote in favor of the pullout, with no more clarity on how to achieve it. Extending the deadline for the EU exit without a consensus game plan would be like a prisoner asking for more torture.  

That leaves Britain with the somber prospect of slipping out of the EU without a deal and without substitute bilateral trade deals with key trading partners such as the United States. The plan-less exit also would pose serious internal problems, such as how to manage the border between Ireland, which would still be in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which wouldn’t. This is a border that has a troubled history as a true humanitarian crisis. Many worry it could return to that troubled history.

From a wider angle, this is an awkward time for the world’s two leading democracies to indulge in self-inflicted combat. As one veteran traveler told a news reporter, this is bad time to visit either the United States or Britain because both appear to be in the middle of civil wars. Add to that the yellow vest protests that have rocked France and what you see is not a pretty picture of economic, social or political stability.

British unrest stems from a nationalist drive to maintain Britain’s sovereignty. French discontent pivots on restive attitudes about persistent income inequality. The US stand-off centers on an unmet campaign promise.

The US political stalemate would seem the easiest to resolve, but has been elevated to a larger political battlefield. Supporters have warned Trump, who brags about his deal-making prowess, that his presidency could effectively end if he fails to get money for the border wall. The newly elected Democratic majority in the House is disinclined to toll over to Trump demands. Trump’s threat of a presidential declaration of emergency that would go around Congress to find the money to build the border wall could trigger a constitutional crisis.

What seems missing in the United States and Britain is a sense of the bigger picture – a more aggressive Russia, China’s ascendancy as a world power and the rise of right-wing authoritarian governments. Any one of these could be the tinder box that sparks a major conflict engulfing the bickering and compromised democratic powers. It has happened before when there have been voids in international leadership.

Commentators are beginning to point to Russia as a culprit in both seasons of discontent. Sowing division among the major world democracies is a much cheaper foreign policy than a military build-up, and perhaps a defter strategy to undermine NATO, a major objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shadow of Russia will grow longer as Special Counsel Robert Mueller moves to wrap up his investigation into Russian election meddling and potential collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016.

Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt Brexit and the border wall stalemates are causing economic pain, with little relief in sight.