September is going to be a mess. Congress must sort out some really complicated fiscal issues. There is the budget, an increase in the debt limit, how much to spend on federal programs and services, and, if there’s time, tax reform.
This should be easy in a one-party government. Republicans only need to come up with a budget plan. Then the House acts, the Senate does its thing, and President Donald J. Trump signs the idea into law. Easy. Except there is no Republican majority in Congress (other than the R listed by members’ names.)
The House is made up of at least three factions, or parties, and no majority. (The three groups are: Republicans, Democrats, and the more conservative House Freedom Caucus.) So in order to gather enough votes to pass a budget, or any other of the challenges, at least two of the three factions have to agree on a plan.
The Senate has its own divisions within the Republican Party. (The very reason why a Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act has not yet become law.)
And the White House is not on the same page either. The president proposed a stingy budget that’s been pretty much rejected by members of the House and the Senate (except the more conservative elements such as the House Freedom Caucus.)
For example the Trump proposed budget calls for $4.7 billion for the Indian Health Service, a cut of some $300 million or 6 percent of the agency’s budget. But a House spending plan calls for an increase of $97 million over last year’s levels. Indeed, the Appropriations Committee that funds IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to spend a total of $4.3 billion more than the president requested on programs under its jurisdiction. (In general: The president’s budget reflects significant budget cuts across Indian Country, according to analysis by the National Congress of American Indians.)
The Senate will come up with its own spending plan. Then, in theory, the two houses will resolve their differences and agree on how much the federal government should spend next year (and the president can go along or veto the legislation and start all over).
But no. That’s not how Congress is actually legislating these days. More often Congress agrees to a temporary spending measure based on last year’s budget, a Continuing Resolution. That’s an easier sell to members even if it does represent a last minute, throw up your hands, and do something approach. The other alternative is a government shutdown. That could happen. President Trump tweeted in May that "our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!"
Yes, the budget is a mess. Period. Even take the word, “budget.” That’s a proposal from the president. But in Congress a “budget” is a spending limit that Congress imposes on itself. It sets a ceiling that each of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees have to live with. And, more important right now, the budget sets the rules for debate so the Senate can pass some legislation (such as the health care bill) with only 50 votes. (Most bills need 60 votes to stop a filibuster from stopping the process.)
Back to the congressional budget. Last month the Budget Committee approved a plan that would cut domestic spending by $2.9 trillion over the next decade. The full House will vote on this plan when it returns. It’s a bleak document that would end up slashing many of the programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives. Remember the appropriations committees would still figure out how to spend the money; but the budget would act as an overall cap. Less pie to divide.
This budget plan starts off with historically low federal spending that is compounded by even more severe budget cuts between now and 2027. To show how out of touch this budget is, it includes program cuts for Medicaid that were a part of the failed health care legislation. (What's changed? Nothing.) This bill tips action toward the conservatives who want deep spending cuts to be sooner, as in right now.
That makes the problem political. There are probably not enough votes to make this budget so. A few Republicans don’t see this harsh approach as good government. And even if the votes are found in the House, the Senate is another story. Think health care.
And if this budget cannot pass, it’s not likely there is another one that would. Democrats in the House say they want to spend more money: “Congress cannot continue to underfund these crucial investments … (and) without relief from these spending caps, vital government programs are facing significant cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would have significant effects on American families all across the country.”
And the budget is only one fiscal crisis. Another issue that is immediate and serious involves the debt limit. That’s the amount of money the federal government can borrow and it's currently set at $19.85 trillion (federal debt exceeds that level now, but the Secretary of Treasury can basically shuffle money from different accounts). Conservatives want spending cuts as part of any deal to increase the debt limit. As Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, told MSNBC. A debt limit increase without spending cuts is “like having a credit card and saying, ‘I've reached my limit, I'm just going to change the limit higher without changing any of my spending habits.’”
But, like on the budget issue, the votes are not there. (Especially in the Senate where 60 votes will be needed.)
This is tricky because the Republican administration understands what failure could do to the country. Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is now supporting a debt limit increase. But when he served in Congress, Mulvaney said he was willing to risk a default to force a discussion on spending.
Key point here: Votes from Democrats will be needed in both the House and the Senate to pass an increase in the debt limit. But will there be enough Republicans?
If Congress does not pass the debt limit, the impact would be “catastrophic.” And, almost immediately, this failure would hit federal budgets because interest rates would spike upward. Interest rates are already the fastest growing part of the federal budget and a sharp increase in rates would add significantly to the total federal debt. In other words: By voting against a debt limit increase, Congress would make the debt problem worse. Far worse.
But Republicans have campaigned against a debt limit increase for a long time. So it’s going to be one tough vote.
In case you’re keeping score: Republican leaders plus Democrats will be needed to increase the debt limit. Most Republicans including the House Freedom Caucus will need to vote for the budget and appropriations bills. Or, those budget and spending bills will have to include more Democratic priorities to win that party’s support.
So yes, September is going to be a mess. And after the budget, spending bills, and debt limit is complete, there’s still tax reform on the agenda. Yet another mess.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.