Cutting it Close on Shutdown and Default

Blog Post
Friday, October 01, 2021

This week on Facing the Future, we got a bipartisan view of a big week in Washington from two veteran Capitol Hill staffers, Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Joe Minarik, senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development of the Conference Board. Concord Coalition Policy Director Tori Gorman, herself a veteran of many legislative battles, joined the conversation.

For those interested in the federal budget, this week has it all; a potential government shutdown, a debt limit stand-off, a bipartisan physical infrastructure bill, and a partisan reconciliation bill. This isn’t quite the fiscal Super Bowl, but we’re certainly in the playoffs and our guests provided some great color commentary.

Hoagland, a Republican, has 33 years of federal government service, including 25 years on the U.S. Senate staff where he served as staff director of the Senate Budget Committee and director of budget and appropriations for former Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN).

Minarik, a Democrat, was the chief economist of the Office of Management and Budget for all eight years of the Clinton Administration. He also served as chief economist to the House Budget Committee and staff director of the Joint Economic Committee.

Both guests expressed frustration that the fiscal year so often ends with the threat of a government shutdown and the need for one or more "continuing resolutions" (CRs), essentially freezing agency budgets until the 12 regular appropriation bills are passed. The latest such CR was passed by Congress and signed by President Biden on Thursday, September 30. It extends funding at current levels through December 3rd with some exceptions for emergency relief.

“It’s not the way we should do business,” Minarik said.

Hoagland said it was time to “rethink the whole budget appropriations process and move to a biennial appropriations process or some form of an automatic CR so that once we get up to this point and we haven’t passed appropriations, it automatically keeps government running at the current level without having to go through this game of chicken we seem to have fallen into recently.”

A downside to automatic CRs, Minarik observed, would be if members of Congress “become so cynical that they would decide that they can freeze the size of government by just refusing to pass appropriation bills.”

Another development that concerns Hoagland and Minarik is that the reconciliation process, which is a way around the Senate filibuster, is now used for things that can worsen the fiscal outlook rather than to facilitate hard choices on fiscal responsibility.

“The process has changed dramatically, since it was originally designed, from what it was supposed to do,” Hoagland said. Minarik added, “When it comes to spending money, you probably don’t need a parliamentary advantage, and certainly not when it comes to cutting taxes.”

We ended with a discussion of the debt limit and why it is so difficult to raise or suspend it, even when doing so is necessary to cover the bills for past policy decisions that increased the debt. Hoagland advocated an automatic debt limit increase to accommodate the level of debt approved in a budget resolution.

Gorman asked whether it would make sense to “nuke” the filibuster in a targeted way to allow changes in the debt limit with a simple majority vote. Hoagland and Minarik were open to that idea in theory, but expressed concern that it would lead to many similar proposals for other issues and, potentially, to the complete elimination of the filibuster.

“I still think that the great deliberative body [the Senate] needs to retain its ability to have the filibuster. So, good idea, but I’m a little nervous about where it would lead to in the next steps down the road to the elimination of the filibuster completely.,” Hoagland said. Minarick agreed. “I would not like to go down that road and I hope we don’t have to,” he said.   

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL, NHTalkRadio.com (N.H.), and it is also available via podcast. Join me and my guests as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.