The Can-Kicking Congress: Business as Usual

By William M. Christian

WasteWatcher, August 2017

In political patois, “kicking the can down the road” connotes procrastination.  As long as the proverbial can is kicked “down the road,” rather than picked up, then the proper disposition of the derelict container is put off until some future point in time.  And much like the (equally proverbial) kicker’s aversion to taking definitive action on a relatively straightforward task, the U.S. Congress is composed of 535 “can kickers,” given their predilection to avoid taking action until the last possible minute.  On Tuesday, September 5, 2017, when the current Congress reconvenes after its annual August recess, it will have less than a month to complete several “must pass” items.

Funding the Government.  For some strange reason, it always seems to take Congress by surprise that, every year, there is a “September 30.”  This, of course, is the date that marks the end of a given fiscal year, at least until either time stops or leaders change the government’s operating calendar.  Each chamber of Congress has an appropriations committee, and each of those has 12 identical subcommittees charged with funding the various functions of government.  In the House of Representatives, all 12 appropriations bills have passed (at least) the full committee; four of those (Defense; Energy & Water Development; Legislative Branch; and Military Construction & Veterans Affairs) passed the full House on July 27, in the so-called “security bus” omnibus spending bill.

Because the “security bus” includes $1.57 billion (or less than one quarter of one percent of the bill’s total of $789.6 billion) in funding for President Trump’s priority border wall, and because it exceeds defense spending caps by more than $63.5 billion, Senate Democrats will attempt to block its passage.  Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called the plan “dead on arrival.”

While the House is expected to pass the remaining eight appropriations bills in one or more additional combined packages soon after it reconvenes in September, the Senate is much further behind.  Only six of its 12 appropriations bills have been approved by the full committee, with the relevant subcommittees having only held hearings, but no mark-ups, on the remaining six.

To further heighten tensions ahead of the brinksmanship that is likely to occur as the deadline draws near, President Trump has threatened a government shutdown if the funding for his border wall is not included in a deal that he would otherwise sign.

Budget Resolution.  Process observers might argue that part of the problem with well-intentioned efforts to return to so-called “regular order” (i.e., the process of considering each individual appropriations bill in each chamber) is that it typically requires passage of a budget resolution, which then sets the top-line numbers for appropriators to use as their parameters for setting spending.  Typically, this action takes place early enough in the year for the appropriations process itself to begin in the March-April timeframe.  However, given Congress’ use of the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget resolution to facilitate the procedural process (budget reconciliation) considered necessary for passage of healthcare reform, that schedule has slipped significantly.  To its credit, the House Budget Committee passed its FY 2018 budget resolution on July 19, 2017; but, the full House was unable to reach agreement on its provisions before the August recess.

Without the budget resolution, appropriators have established their own spending caps.  Beyond spending, though, the absence of a budget resolution (the legislative vehicle necessary for budget reconciliation instructions) portends poorly for tax reform.  In the words of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), “Clearly, no budget, no tax reform.”

Healthcare Reform.  While not (necessarily) a “must-pass” item, notwithstanding President Trump’s withering criticism of the GOP’s failure to fulfill this seven-year campaign promise, Congress cannot move forward with the 2018 reconciliation process, to include tax reform, until the 2017 reconciliation process (allowing for some version of “repeal and replace” of Obamacare, with Republican votes only) is either completed or abandoned entirely.

National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  One of the few authorization bills to be considered annually, virtually without fail, the NDAA is expected to be taken up when the Senate reconvenes.  The fiscal year (FY) 2018 NDAA, approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on June 28, 2017, authorizes $700 billion in spending.  According the SASC website, the bill “authorizes a base defense budget of $632 billion.  Together with the administration’s request of $8 billion for other defense activities … [t]he bill also authorizes $60 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations.”  After the Senate acts, a conference to reconcile differences with the House-passed version of NDAA is anticipated.

Aviation Infrastructure Reform.  One of the potential bright spots in the legislative calendar involves the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and related aviation infrastructure reforms.  A top priority for the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) is passage of the Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act.  On June 27, 2017, CCAGW joined 22 like-minded organizations and influencers in an open letter to Congress, advocating for modernization of the air traffic control system:  “…we all believe that one priority is transforming the nation’s air traffic control system into an independently managed organization funded by and accountable to its customers.”  The current FAA authorization will expire on September 30, so passage of the AIRR Act (or some temporary extension) will be required.

Debt Limit.  With virtually no rest allowed, following the fiscal year deadlines, Congress must raise the statutory limit on U.S. debt by mid-October.  Without the fix, the U.S. risks defaulting on its debt obligations.  According to an August 22, 2017, Fox Business News report, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed his desire for a “clean” debt limit increase, free of any spending reforms or other policy riders.  He said, “[I]t is my strong preference that there is a clean raise of the debt limit.”

Such a free ride tends to be anathema to fiscal conservatives.  As expressed by Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) in his August 7, 2017 Washington Examiner op-ed, “A clean debt ceiling is dirty politics,” a no-strings-attached increase in the debt limit “would simply increase the borrowing authority of the government while irresponsibly ignoring the urgency of reforms.”  Rather than ignoring the need for the increase, such a raise “needs to be accompanied by reforms to address the problems that cause it.  We can’t afford to kick this can down the road.”

Moreover, as Chairman Walker points out, “[a]nother problem with a ‘clean’ increase is that if it lacks the votes to pass, which appears to be so, congressional leaders load it up with even more increased spending and must-pass legislation to attract the necessary votes.  Historically, this is done by reaching across the aisle to produce a bill that is as unsavory politically as it is fiscally.”

After Labor Day, the can-kicking Congress comes back to town.  Critical issues that are postponed until the last minute usually result in more spending and bigger government, regardless of which party is in the majority.  Clarion call to Congress:  quit kicking the can.

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