Why Can’t Congress Get It’s Work Done?

Special Guests: Jon Lieber

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This week on Facing the Future, we considered the possibility of a government shutdown. If Congress fails to agree on funding levels for the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1st, many government offices will need to close their doors. With less than two weeks to go, negotiators seem far apart and it’s not just Democrats vs Republicans. Division among House Republicans has also been a problem. We discussed the state of play with Jon Lieber, managing director of the Eurasia Group and a former senior advisor to Senator Mitch McConnell. 

Lieber began by observing, “The fact that we’re seeing complete dysfunction around the budget process isn’t new. What is new, however, is that the Republicans themselves are completely unable to align around a vision of what they want to do.”

He expanded on how this came about. “The debt limit bill that passed earlier this year … did agree on basically flat funding for non-defense spending and a modest three percent increase for defense spending, which should have been the guidepost [for] the appropriations process that we’re in the middle of. But there’s a group of Republicans in the House who aren’t happy with those numbers and are pressuring House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in order to get deeper cuts or other policy concessions related to the border, or related to the investigations into President Donald Trump, and a whole bunch of other stuff that they’re fighting for. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to come together because there just aren’t the votes in the House and Senate to do it. So right now, it looks like a bit of a mess.”

That said, Lieber is not convinced that a shutdown is inevitable. “I’m actually a little bit more optimistic than a lot of other analysts who are watching this,” he said “because we sort of have played this game before. And we know that the House Republicans who don’t like what’s being put forward, and don’t like what was agreed to in the debt limit bill, are never going to vote for a Government funding bill.”

“We also know,” Lieber continued, “that there’s a majority in the House and a 60 vote majority in the Senate that would vote for an appropriations bill that hit those levels already agreed to in the debt limit bill. So we know what the last page of the book looks like, it’s just a matter of how we get there. And right now we’re in the middle of kind of the high levels of drama that are sometimes involved in working out a resolution.”

The immediate drama is centered around passing a continuing resolution (CR) before October 1st to temporarily fund government agencies until full-year funding bills can be worked out. In other words, Washington may be going through this same shutdown threat in a month or two, depending on the length of whatever CR is agreed to.

Lieber does not see a political advantage for either party in a shutdown. “My perspective is that there’s very little evidence that government shutdowns matter at all one way or the other. Typically what you see in the polling response after a shutdown is that voters basically blame both sides. ‘Why can’t these people just get an agreement?’’  It just looks like a lot of noise emanating from Washington in a fight for kind of silly reasons, and voters have a hard time distinguishing whose fault that is.”

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 us 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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