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Enemies smile as Congress commits ‘professional malpractice’

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Welcome to 2018 – a midterm election year.

Every seat in the House of Representatives, and one-third of those in the Senate are up for a decision by the voters. Between today and Election Day in November, Congress is likely to accomplish very little, as every legislative vote cast will be based on how well it plays in the Member’s home state.

This does not encourage bold action on major issues. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty on the Congressional to-do list. Re-opening the government is obviously a pressing concern. As this was written, the government had been shut down for two and a half days.

Since October 2017, the government was funded by a series of continuing resolutions (CR).

On January 19th, the third CR expired at midnight. While the House had passed a CR lasting until February 16th, the Senate was paralyzed and unable to move forward on the fourth CR, and the government shut down.

This column has lamented this situation many times before. A continuing resolution is bad enough, but a government shutdown hurts everyone.

The inability of Congress to pass appropriations on time has been called “professional malpractice” by Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, and the whole nation suffers for it.

Technically, the current holdup is the Democrats’ demand that the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) be solved before they will support another continuing resolution. The Republicans maintain that DACA is its own issue whose solution is not urgent, unlike the need to fund the government. However, Congress wouldn’t be in this situation if it were not for the real underlying issue – the Budget Control Act of 2011, or BCA.

As my avid readers know, the BCA imposed caps on defense and non-defense discretionary spending from 2012 to 2021 in order to cut $1 trillion in projected spending, and also appointed a “super-committee” to find an additional $1 trillion in cuts.

The BCA included a doomsday device to pressure the committee to find a solution. If they failed, a mechanism called “sequestration” would be enacted that would mindlessly make across-the-board cuts using a formula instead of human judgement. This is a result that was presumed too horrible to allow to happen. Of course, the super-committee failed to reach an agreement. Sequestration – the mechanism that no one wanted – became the law.

Sequestration hit in 2013, causing significant damage to military readiness and morale. Congress then proceeded to pass some patches to the law, which reduced the sequestration cuts and raised the spending limits for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.

For 2018, there is no deal so far, because Republicans only want to raise the defense discretionary spending cap, and Democrats are demanding parity for non-defense discretionary spending if the defense cap is raised.

Until Congress can agree on how much to raise the caps for both, they can’t rewrite the appropriations bills, since they don’t know how much money is available to spend.

That’s the simplified version of the true reason there is an appropriations stand-off, and multiple continuing resolutions have been required.

Then you have to add in the complicating issues of immigration reform (DACA/Dreamers and a border wall), disaster relief funding, pensions, Children’s Health Insurance Program, tax extenders, the debt limit suspension and health insurance market stabilization, and the process grinds to a halt.

Meanwhile, as Congress struggles to come to agreement, our government is shut down.

If a CR is again passed, funding will be on autopilot with funding levels that were initially set in 2015 when the budget was drafted.

During the first full week of February, the President’s Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2019 is due to Congress, yet, at that point the administration won’t even know how much was appropriated for 2018.

With our government paralyzed with partisanship, unable to execute its most fundamental task of passing a budget, our enemies smile and feel stronger. This is no way to run the most powerful nation on Earth.

See you on the high ground.