SITREP - September 30th, 2013
By now, you all know about the showdown in Congress over temporary funding for the government. The stubbornness on both sides and the inability to reach a consensus is well known and it’s been covered plenty by the media. I don’t want to waste your time rehashing all of that. And truth be told, what frustrates me goes far beyond this specific impasse.
What bothers me the most, in all of this, isn’t the inability to agree to a short-term funding measure (6 weeks, 8 weeks, whatever). What bothers me is that Congress is doing short-term funding measures at all.
In the good old days, the budget process worked like this: the president submits a budget request to Congress. The House looks at it and passes a House budget resolution taking the president’s input into account. The Senate does the same. This is supposed to happen early in the spring. The House and Senate then designate a few people from each chamber to sit down together and come up with a compromise version. That compromise version is then passed by both chambers and we have agreed upon targets for spending and tax policy. At that point, the real work of Congress begins.
The House and Senate appropriations committees sit down and begin their work on each of the twelve separate appropriations bills, which fund each agency within the government. It takes months of hard work in both the House and Senate, but in the normal process, each of the twelve is ultimately passed and Congress will have done its job both funding the government and looking closely at each department to determine priorities and appropriate resources allocations.
That was the good old days. For years now, long before President Obama came to office, that process has started to slide. This spring, for the first time in four years, the Senate actually passed a budget resolution… the first and most basic step in the annual process. So that’s good. But the House and Senate budget resolutions looked wildly different and there was no effort made to reconcile the two. Aside from that, for the last two years, the Senate has failed to pass even one single appropriations bill. Not even one. The House, for its part, has passed some, but not nearly all of the annual twelve department funding bills. Both sides have some blame here.
The effect of abandoning the normal budget process is that Congress is left to pass these short-term spending bill (or year-long, if they choose) that simply keep things funded at the last agreed upon levels. No real effort is made (because it’s not possible in a “CR”) to look at individual programs within each agency’s budget. There is no opportunity to look at new priorities, old wasteful spending, or anything in between. In short, even if Congress summons the will to pass this six or eight week “CR” and manage to keep the government open for a few more months, they’ve still punted on their most basic governing responsibilities. That’s the part that makes me angry.
I didn’t come to Washington to help be part of the foot that kicks the can a little further down the road. I came to Congress to try to seek real solutions to the biggest problems facing this country. Of the options that are presented on the House floor, I make the best decisions I can about which options to choose. But the reality is that the most important questions aren’t even up for debate right now.
You’ve heard me talk in weeks past about the devastating nature of the “across the board” sequestration cuts that are indiscriminately gutting our military. That’s a serious issue and it’s one that Congress ought to be addressing immediately. Same with the tax code. Nearly everybody in Washington agrees that the tax code is a complete mess and that it is costing us jobs. When is the last time you heard the news report on progress with tax reform…? It’s not even on the agenda. We have serious problems with current inadequate funding of Medicare and Social Security and no steps are being taken to address those. In short, Congress isn’t doing much but trying to figure out a way to pay the bills for a few weeks at a time. It’s a sorry state of affairs and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t frustrated by it.
I’m doing my best to communicate that frustration to my colleagues (most of whom agree) and to the leadership, but we’re just not seeing action. Congress has serious challenges to confront, but until everybody up here feels the pressure to do fulfill the most basic responsibilities of Congress, I don’t see how this situation improves.
The American people are fed up and with good reason. I sincerely wish I had some bright spots to point to about the good work that your representative government is doing for you, but frankly, this is the bad time. No one person or party is to blame. It is a combined failure. It is critical that the American people speak up. I know that “budget process” isn’t generally the most exciting thing, but we have a process for a reason. It’s important that Congress sticks to it.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure how long this potential shutdown might last. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail on both sides and we can find a way to keep the lights on for at least a couple months. But just know that as we end this fiscal year and enter a new one for 2014, it’s an opportunity to start the normal process all over again. Make sure that if you have priorities (or simply believe in the importance of basic management), that you express those views to your senators and to me. The current disaster can’t continue like this. But if the American people don’t speak up, it clearly and certainly will.
As always, I appreciate your willingness to be involved. I will also keep you informed this week as things develop. For the time being, we’ve passed a bill in the House that would make sure the troops are paid in the event of a government shutdown. Hopefully the Senate will pass that this afternoon. I will let you know if anything changes. Thank you again.