It’s time to check back in on how Congress is handling America’s fiscal security. The “Big Four” — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) — are back to negotiating with the White House for the latest round of budget talks.
The stakes of this round of budget talks are even higher this time around — as the September 30 government funding deadline coincides with forecasts by fiscal analysts that the U.S. will reach its debt limit around the same time. In other words, Congress has to juggle the risks of economic catastrophe from a debt default with the prospect of another government shutdown.
What is happening now?
After Congress blew past the April 15th deadline to approve a budget, nobody knows what the overall funding levels will be for next year. House Democrats are predominantly pressing for higher levels of non-defense domestic spending and reductions in defense spending, while Senate Republicans and the White House are predominantly pushing for higher levels of defense spending and reductions in non-defense spending.
While talks have commenced on how to bridge this divide, no deal has been reached. That uncertainty makes it very difficult to put together and pass the individual bills that fund the government.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) currently finds himself at odds with Sen. McConnell over what Republicans should do about that problem. According to The Hill, Sen. Shelby favors an approach called “deeming” — using tentative budget figures in appropriations bills in lieu of getting a formal budget agreement — while Sen. McConnell is insistent on hammering out a formal budget deal with Speaker Pelosi and the White House before proceeding with funding bills.
Another can kicking exercise?
Worse yet, there is uncertainty over whether the issue will be punted once again in the form of a continuing resolution, a patchwork bill that keeps the government funded at the exact same levels as last year. While Sen. McConnell calls a CR “unacceptable,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD) says it is a “possibility.” For young Americans hoping for fiscal responsibility, this should be the most galling point of the negotiation process.
What about the debt ceiling?
None of the above even gets to the substance of the debt ceiling talks, which are being treated with the same level of seriousness the subject received from Veep’s incompetent Congressman Jonah Ryan. Hitting the debt ceiling is a serious ordeal. If Congress does not reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling prior to the deadline, then the federal government would run out of the borrowing capacity needed to fund a quarter of its bill. Many believe this mass default would plunge the United States into a recession.
Despite a perfunctory statement from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that “both parties agreed that they needed to raise the debt ceiling,” neither the Big Four nor the White House have demonstrated concern about the repercussions of failing to reach an agreement. Some of those repercussions include sharp interest rate increases, devaluation of the dollar, and a halt to government salary and benefit payments.
“Big Four” negotiating teams and White House approval have become standard for budget deliberations in Congress, but it is also why they always end in panicked brinksmanship and 11th hour fixes. What if Sen. McConnell stood back so Sen. Shelby could negotiate among the committee he leads to craft a durable budget bill? What if Congress dared the president to veto their budget and debt ceiling agreements instead of asking for his permission at the beginning?
The answers to these questions will remain unanswered as long as party leaders and the White House continue to negotiate sweeping fiscal matters with no input from their rank-and-file until a crisis emerges. For all the discussion about how divided Republican and Democratic leaders are over the details of these fights, they ironically share the same approach. As Pursuit’s Bryan Berky observes, “every time there is a cap discussion, no one talks about the long-term issues. They only talk about the short-term need to continue full-fledged funding for discretionary programs that members like to tout.”
As America’s fiscal outlook grows darker with every slipshod agreement struck because of impending deadlines, it is evident that being beholden to the priorities of party leaders has not yielded long-term oriented results. Decentralizing these discussions is a necessary first step to reforming the process in a way that ensures discontented members are heard. Ultimately, it means ensuring lawmakers are responsive to the concerns of future generations alarmed by the ever-growing financial burden that will be handed down to us.