We are on day 33 of a partial government shutdown. The only activity from the leaders of the negotiations last week was a cancelled speech followed by a cancelled flight. This week, there are a couple of show votes that have no chance of passage.
Nearly a million Americans are soon to miss a 2nd paycheck entirely due to Congress and the President’s inability to do their basic jobs. Yet, there are no tangible consequences for Congress – which is already fully funded for the year.
Let that sink in.
In November, a Bipartisan Joint Commission on Budget Reform debated a series of reforms to fix a budget process that, since 1976, has resulted in more than five times as many shutdowns (22) as successful completions (4). Some of the ideas considered would address the very problem that we are seeing today – Congress feeling no impact of a funding lapse while federal employees and Americans that rely on federal services get the brunt of the harm.
Senators Ernst (R-IA), Lankford (R-OK), and Perdue (R-GA) offered a proposal called the No Budget, No Recess Act. If Congress does not complete its work on time (pass a budget by March 15th and all spending bills by August 1st), then they cannot leave Washington DC until their work is done (Sens. Ernst, Lankford and Perdue introduced No Budget, No Recess as standalone legislation last week). In other words, build a wall around DC until they get their jobs done.
The No Budget, No Recess failed to gain enough support from the Democrats on the Joint Commission to pass. The Democratic Commission Co-Chair and now-Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) led the opposition to the proposal and all of its iterations. She argued that the problem is not with the process or incentives, rather it’s with the members. Congress just needs more political will to complete its work on time.
On day 33 of this record-breaking shutdown, it’s clear that Rep. Lowey’s bet on political will was a terrible one. Especially for furloughed workers.
This month, Democrats took the majority in the House after an amazing election performance that centered around accountability. H.R. 1, the bill number reserved for the top policy priority for the majority party, is a “sweeping anti-corruption bill aimed at stamping out the influence of money in politics.”
Yet, an article in The Hill this morning reported that momentum is growing in the new Democratic House majority to bring back the corrosive practice of earmarking – or what Congress will try to rename as “congressionally directed spending” because earmarks is a “dirty word.” Because nothing says we are the party for accountability and against corruption like bringing back the practice that placed members of Congress in jail, supercharges the influence of the DC lobbying industry, empowers seniority and bludgeons rank-and-file members to get into line to pass massive spending bills.
Make no mistake, there are many Republicans clamoring for the return of earmarks – which have been banned since 2011. Yes, the same Republicans that won the White House, Senate, and House in 2016 under the mantra “Drain the Swamp.” They followed up that victory with a push to immediately bring back earmarks. The effort was squashed by Speaker Ryan.
Republican Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) made the case that earmarks will give members incentives to vote for bipartisan compromise bills, thus making the budgeting process more functional. Sen. Blunt made the “grease the wheels case” for earmarks, saying “I think it’s not coincidental that the appropriations system and other legislative [process] dramatically deteriorated in their ability to produce a result at the same time that the Congress stopped directing the administration as to how money should be spent.”
Who is making the case in the House? None other than Rep. Nita Lowey, the same person that said that Congress does not need different processes and incentives to do its job. They just need more political will. Lowey wrote in a letter to the House Democratic caucus that they should “review procedures and work with the Senate to determine the most effective way to carry out our constitutional responsibilities through congressionally directed spending.” A spokesman confirmed to The Hill that she is supportive of earmarks returning.
Rep. Lowey is saying give us the carrots, not the sticks. And whenever this shutdown finally ends, there will be a bipartisan parade of congressmen that will march to that tune.
Congress would truly be in an impenetrable bubble to think that the American people sent them there to hand pick projects with DC lobbyists while going completely unscathed during a 33-day political fight. Yet, there’s an increasing likelihood that earmarks will return while No Budget, No Recess remains on the bench.
One more time. Incentives matter.
Congress is fundamentally broken right now. The only incentives are to win base-pleasing news narratives and to ultimately win the next election. There are no consequences when they fail to do their basic legislative duties. There are no incentives to serve the American people as a whole. Only to serve themselves.
So it comes as no surprise when there are competing proposals to change incentives to improve a broken budget – many of our elected representatives will choose the self-serving carrots, not the sticks.