Congress has a Tall Agenda and a Short Clock

Special Guests: Jon Lieber, Tori Gorman

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This week on Facing the Future, we spoke with one of the top experts on Congressional process and economic policy – Jon Lieber, managing director for the Eurasia Group’s United States Practice.   Lieber has extensive experience in top policy positions in government, serving as an economist on the House Ways and Means Committee, an associate director at the National Economic Council at the White House, and a senior economic policy adviser on the leadership team of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Concord Coalition Policy Director Tori Gorman also joined me for the discussion, which focused on the tall agenda facing Congress with a relatively short clock before lawmakers go home to campaign.

Topping the Congressional agenda is an emergency $40 billion supplemental spending bill in support of Ukraine. A bill funding new military and humanitarian aid passed with bipartisan support in the House this week and may be voted on by the Senate next week. There is also interest in some action to combat inflation; a possible reversal of the Biden administration’s suspension of Title 42 stopping migrants from coming over the southern border as a public health measure during the pandemic; and some form of student debt relief.

Lieber says all of this activity obscures the fact that Congress is not feeling a lot of pressure to do its main job, which is to fund the government.

“I think there’s no chance that they move bills through regular order this year; I don’t even think they’re trying that hard,” said Lieber. “They just wrapped up the appropriations process for FY 2022. We’re about halfway through the fiscal year and they just finished legislating the full year appropriations bill here in March.  I just think the reality is their ambitions just aren’t that great this year.  They don’t have a budget. They don’t even have the top line numbers to even build an appropriations bill around.  With the elections coming up this November, there is just not a huge incentive to work together.”

Lieber sees a good chance that Republicans will take control of the House in November.  This, he says, may motivate Democrats to come in for a lame duck after the November elections and try to lock in a full year appropriations bill for FY 2023 in order to preserve some of their spending priorities while they still control Congress and the White House.

Lieber says this is an indication that the 1974 Budget Control Act isn’t working. Congress repeatedly blows through its deadlines and only follows procedure when a reconciliation bill–a measure that can pass the Senate with a simple majority–is a possibility. Lieber says there are larger forces at play here that may lead to Congressional budget reform in the future.

“The 1974 budget act has really failed to achieve its goals; it’s obsolete at this point,” said Lieber.  “The deadlines are routinely ignored, and it’s only used now to unlock reconciliation.   We’re on a path where eventually the filibuster will probably go away in the Senate in the next 10 years.  Once the filibuster is gone, reconciliation will not even be important anymore. We’ve gone through eras of government reform in the past – military reform, pension reform, budget reform, and you’re going to need some external trigger to force a reform in the budget process.  I think we’re very far away from that, we’re really not close to having that happen now.  But the budget law is really not serving its function anymore, and most of the spending is on autopilot now.”

Looking at some items on the near-term congressional agenda, Lieber expressed doubt that a new COVID supplemental spending bill will pass any time soon. For one thing, it has become entangled in a fight about whether to allow a vote on suspending a public health provision (Title 42) that allows the federal government to expel asylum seekers without a hearing due to COVID concerns.  Moreover, Lieber said, “For most voters, COVID is just not on their minds,” having fallen below traditional issues such as the economy, crime and immigration.

According to Lieber, “Immigration is emerging as a major issue for the voters.  We’re not done with COVID yet, but there is no real urgency around the money.  They are basically saying we need this money for the fall, for treatments and testing down the road.”

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord 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.

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