An Elusive, Bipartisan Breakthrough?
Though there has always been rancor in politics (Thomas Jefferson allegedly paid a journalist to publish an article calling John Adams “hermaphroditic” during the 1800 presidential election), the last several years have been particularly divisive in Washington. As we approach the expiration of the fourth short-term continuing resolution since September that has been cobbled together at the last minute to avert a government shutdown, it would be fair to observe that even the smallest, seemingly least-controversial bills seem unable to escape the ever-growing tentacles of partisanship. To wit: in the context of a broader strategy to block Democrats, who were then in the majority in the House of Representatives, from enacting their policy agenda, 178 members of Congress voted to block a nonbinding resolution supporting Mother’s Day in 2008.
But there is hope.
For the last several weeks, Congressional leaders from both parties have been quietly negotiating a massive, two-year budget deal that could break the impasse in Congress. Amidst a short government shutdown, emotionally-charged disputes over immigration policy, and the threat of the U.S. defaulting on its debt for the first time in its 240-year history, there are growing indications that suggest that Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY), Minority Leader Schumer (D-NY), House Speaker Ryan (D-WI), and Minority Leader Pelosi (D-CA), have reached agreement on a budget framework that both chambers of Congress could vote on as early as this week.
Under the agreement, defense and domestic spending would increase over the next two years by $300 billion, Congress would appropriate $81 billion to disaster recovery following a series of horrific storms and wildfires, and the debt limit would be increased or suspended to provide the Treasury Department with the ability to issue bonds for at least for the remainder of 2018. Like any true bipartisan agreement, neither side will be completely happy. The defense increases are lower than most Republicans will like, and fiscal conservatives within the GOP could oppose the additional, significant disaster funding. The Freedom Caucus is also likely to aggressively oppose the notion of raising or suspending the debt limit without mandating broad spending reductions – the deal would actually boost spending by a few hundred billion dollars. On the other side of the aisle, there are likely to be some disgruntled Democrats. The domestic discretionary increases are lower than many Democrats will like, and there is no intention under the agreement to address the legal status of Dreamers. In short, for the budget deal to become reality, Congressional leaders will have to revert to something of an old-school legislative tactic: cobbling together support from a combination of enough Republican and Democratic members to overcome the objections of the hardliners on both sides.
Action on this plan could start today. The House last night passed another continuing resolution that would extend government funding into mid-March and would boost appropriate $650 billion to defense spending – a nonstarter in the Senate. The Senate could vote as early as this afternoon to strip the defense spending provision from the House bill and to insert the budget, disaster spending and debt ceiling language into the bill. If all goes according to plan, Leaders McConnell and Schumer, who would both support the bill, would assemble a coalition of at least 60 Democratic and Republican senators who would vote to send the bill back to the House no later than tomorrow, where Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi would together find the 218 votes from both sides of the aisle they would need to enact the bill. Both parties would depend on support from enough members of the other to see the deal through.
If Congressional leaders are able to advance their deal – a big “if” – its impact would be significant. With a bipartisan, two-year budget agreed to, Congress would, in very short order, be able to begin enacting long-term appropriations bills that would fund the government for the remainder of the current fiscal year and for the next fiscal year without having to rely on short-term, stopgap continuing resolutions. Federal agencies would have certainty regarding their budgets and could create and execute against strategic organization plans. The single largest threat to the American – and perhaps the world – economy – a U.S. default – would be assertively avoided, providing assurances to the financial markets and America’s trading partners that the full faith and credit of the U.S. government remains an ironclad commitment. More broadly, leaders in Washington would send an important message that, even during one of the most divisive periods in political history, our elected officials can still compromise. The effect of this development – the creation of bipartisan goodwill – cannot be overstated as the vast majority of members of the House and Senate have not served in Congress long enough to have ever seen their chamber enact a truly bipartisan agreement of any significance.
Even if it does come to fruition over the next two days, of course, the budget deal would not be a panacea. There remain many pressing, critical issues that leaders in Washington still must find a way to address in short order. But enactment of a bipartisan budget deal would have the positive cascading effect of creating more goodwill between the two parties that could drive additional compromises on other policy issues. Leaders Schumer and McConnell continue to negotiate legislation that would protect Dreamers, and the various appropriations bills that would begin to make their way through the legislative process would provide several legislative vehicles that could be used to make important investments in government programs with bipartisan approval.
And so there is just a little bit more hope in Washington this week than there has been in quite some time that our government could function, even for just a brief moment, as our Founders intended.