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Posts in "Sequester"
March 2, 2014
The budget President Barack Obama sends to Congress on Tuesday will be a month late and hundreds of billions of dollars short.
But no matter, the Capitol’s conventional wisdom holds, that the unenforced legal deadline for his submission was Feb. 3, and that he’ll propose acquiescing in significant deficits for the indefinite future. A truce has been called in the fiscal wars, the thinking goes, and so Obama’s fiscal 2015 document will be little more than the ritualistic starting point for the most desultory budget debate of this decade.
In the big picture, that is the way it looks to play out. But there are several secondary policymaking and political storylines that could make the budget beat interesting in 2014.
The reasons it’s supposed to be a snooze are by now well understood: The rare bipartisan budget deal reached and ratified in December decided the grand total for discretionary spending in the coming year, so there’s minimal reason for an appropriations deadlock. The latest debt limit extension has locked away that particular countdown clock until well after the elections. That means there’s no new fiscal cliff in sight, allowing both Obama and top Republicans to set aside their last, best offers in pursuit of a grand bargain on deficit reduction.
These are five subplots most worth watching. Full story
January 14, 2014
That 19th-century aphorism “figures don’t lie, but liars will figure” comes to mind when poring over the mind-numbingly comprehensive midyear appropriations package — especially the 44 pages covering the political minefields and minutiae of spending on the legislative branch.
The nation’s legions of Congress-haters are scouring the fine print and concocting their own spreadsheets. They are expecting to uncover evidence that what’s labeled Division I of the omnibus is an exercise in deceitful and hypocritical self-dealing — and are confident they’ll be able to argue persuasively that those voting “yes” this week will be guilty of feathering their own nest at the expense of infinitely more pressing national priorities.
They are being urged on by dozens of Capitol Hill’s own current stewards. These most conservative Republican senators and House members are all too eager to demean the institution in which they work — especially when doing so serves as rationale for opposing a bill with a tough-to-comprehend bottom line cresting $1.1 trillion.
With a couple of narrow exceptions, the naysayers look to be quite disappointed. Full story
December 19, 2013
Appropriators from both parties and both sides of the Capitol have opened intentionally secretive negotiations on the mammoth and complex measure necessary to make good on the budgetary truce just called by Congress.
The four-dozen or so members involved have given themselves less than three weeks to agree on the several thousand line items in the bill, which will be written as non-amendable legislation dictating all of the government’s discretionary spending for the final 37 weeks of this budget year.
The enormity of the task and the extraordinarily tight time table would normally present significant obstacles to a smooth or successful outcome. But the lawmakers who have taken the assignment are betting that those challenges will be eased by several factors:
- The fiscal deal the Senate cleared Thursday, which President Barack Obama will sign before leaving this weekend to spend the holidays in Hawaii, sets a grand total of $1.012 trillion for the package that both parties’ negotiators say they can live with. The figure is $45 billion, or 4.6 percent, more than would have been allowed if the sequester had remained fully on the books.
- The vast majority of lawmakers, not to mention hundreds of lobbyists and advocates, will be away from Washington during the next two work weeks. That should afford the negotiators and their aides an opportunity to set their priorities and make their tradeoffs without the usual volume of importuning — a tiny silver lining, also, for having to work through Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
- The leaders of the talks, Kentucky’s Harold Rogers for the Republican majority in the House and Maryland’s Barbara A. Mikulski for the Democratic majority in the Senate, have agreed to draft the bill as a take-it-or-leave it package deal. Their bet here is that substantial numbers from the rank and file in all four caucuses will be willing to set aside their reservations about the content and their annoyance about the process and vote “yes” — because they know defeating the measure would threaten another government shutdown as the first congressional action of the midterm election year.
The timetable for the next three weeks sketched by Rogers and Mikulski, the chairmen of the two Appropriations committees, begins with a deadline they have set for themselves for the end of the week: apportioning the spending grand total into a dozen slices — the so-called 302(b) spending caps for the subcommittees that are supposed to write 12 different spending bills every year.
This is an immensely important first step, because it means choosing winners and losers at a macro level. A relatively generous number for the subcommittees with jurisdiction over labor, health and education programs, for example, would provide some relief from social spending limits that Democrats would embrace. But that money would mean somewhat smaller top lines for subcommittees in charge of the domestic programs Republicans typically favor, which cover such things as water projects, law enforcement and homeland security. Full story
December 11, 2013
This week is a turning point in the career of Paul D. Ryan — one that’s even more consequential than what happened to him 16 months ago.
Being picked to be the Republican nominee for vice president, it turns out, is only guaranteed to be politically transformative if your ticket wins the general election. Engineering a genuinely bipartisan if undeniably modest budget agreement, on the other hand, is sure to change the trajectory of the 43-year-old Wisconsin congressman’s life.
Ryan will find out within a matter of hours whether the deal has propelled his ambitions forward, or accelerated his long-rising star toward oblivion.
By Wednesday evening, a day after the deal was unveiled, a ratification vote by the full House looked more and more likely. It also looked quite possible that most of Ryan’s fellow Republicans would be on board, even though all the major conservative advocacy groups are pressing for its defeat. Those outcomes are the only legislative mysteries; a solid bipartisan majority is lined up in the Senate, and President Barack Obama is eager to affix his signature.
House passage would be profoundly rewarding for Ryan for several reasons, especially if his plan secures a majority of the majority. Full story
November 18, 2013
The defense authorization bill, which the Senate looks set to debate at least for the rest of the week, is the congressional version of the movie blockbuster that has it all: An amazing array of cool hardware, whiz-bang special effects, political intrigue, spymaster secrecy and some inappropriate sexual behavior — not to mention a staggeringly big price tag.
The measure also has a unique characteristic in the annals of the modern Congress, and all the more striking given the almost totally gridlocked state of legislative affairs: A National Defense Authorization Act has been enacted annually since 1961.
That’s 52 consecutive years in which the House has passed its version of a Pentagon budget, the Senate has passed a different version and the two have been reconciled through conference negotiations. No other measure has come remotely close to that level of consistent success at mimicking the civics textbook version of how a bill becomes law. Through the deepening Cold War, Vietnam, the Reagan defense buildup, the “peace dividend” years and the post-9/11 era, the leaders of the two Armed Services panels have pushed their accomplishment rate into Joe DiMaggio territory. Like his 56-game hitting streak, the Defense authorization record has only a theoretical shot at being broken.
There’s always the chance the streak will come to an end, of course. And the next month looks to test the record’s endurance for a fourth straight year. Full story
November 12, 2013
Updated 4:32 p.m. | One month before their no-penalty-attached deadline, budget negotiators will convene Wednesday morning for only their second public meeting. There’s still no sign anything was accomplished behind the scenes since the opening session two weeks ago — except maybe a downgrading of the already de minimis expectations.
As a practical matter, a grand bargain fell off the table almost as soon as the government reopened in October, and ever since then, the scope of the talks has been narrowed to one modest topic: how much discretionary spending to permit in the final two-thirds of this fiscal year. Full story
October 16, 2013
They couldn’t have scripted it any more obviously: The can is getting kicked to Friday the 13th.
Washington is committing itself to a return to regular order, but only for the next eight weeks.
The most important date for deciding whether this round of fiscal brinkmanship was worth all the melodrama will not be Feb. 7, the next moment when the Treasury might lack authority to borrow to pay the nation’s bills. Nor will it be Jan. 15, the next potential suspension of routine federal operations.
It will be Dec. 13, when negotiators are supposed to complete their conference report on a budget resolution for fiscal 2014. The question is, is two months enough time for cooler heads to take “yes” for an answer? Full story
October 8, 2013
Legislation is enacted empowering an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, senators and House members to set to work on a hurry-up timetable in search of a way out of a thick budgetary morass that has brought the country near the brink of default.
They are called a supercommittee, right?
That was absolutely true two years ago, when the nickname stuck hard and fast to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction even before its proposed creation was unveiled.
But that is absolutely not going to be the case this time, if the people who cooked up the idea for a Bicameral Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth have anything to say about it. Full story
September 30, 2013
A partial government shutdown starting tonight is now looking like a certainty.
Twelve hours before spending authority lapses for all but essential federal operations, there is no sign that either side is willing to contemplate any concessions.
The only viable path to avert the shutdown is under the control of Speaker John A. Boehner, although this morning he gave no hint he was interested in pursuing it. “The House has done its work,” the Ohio Republican declared on the floor in reference to the continuing resolution that his unified Republican troops pushed through early Sunday. It would maintain sequester-level funding of all federal operations for a dozen weeks, delay the health law for a year and repeal a tax on medical devices.
The Senate will convene at 2 p.m., and all indications are that by this evening, the Democrats will be able to use their majority muscle to delete the Obamacare and medical device riders before sending the bill back once more to the House. There are no indications that Texan Ted Cruz or other conservative Republicans will try to prevent that from happening, knowing that delaying beyond midnight would shift responsibility for a shutdown onto them.
Even before the paperwork arrives from the Senate, though, Boehner would be able to get almost all the Democrats and several dozen Republicans to vote for a straightforward extension of existing spending levels — so long as it lasted only until the middle of October, which would align the appropriations battle with the deadline for raising the debt ceiling. The Senate can be counted on to quickly clear such a clean, short-term CR, which would then set the table for a climactic round of negotiations in search of deal that would bring both halves of the budget battle to a coordinated end.
For that scenario to play out, though, Boehner would need to conclude, at the last possible hour, that he can survive the outrage that would spill forth from the hard-line conservatives who dominate his caucus. He would have to persuade them that shouldering most of the blame for a shutdown in the immediate aftermath would weaken their long-term ability to gain any budget concessions or restrictions on implementation of the health law.
A more likely alternative is that, even if Boehner decides to risk assembling a bipartisan majority for a clean short-term CR, he will wait until the shutdown has been in effect for a few days. He would be calculating that the impact on federal services, the paychecks of 800,000 government workers and investor confidence is worth the potential payoff to him: Persuading the conservative hard-liners that the political stovetop they’ve just insisted on touching really was as hot as the leadership predicted it was, and that the fight they are spoiling for is better waged in conjunction with the debt debate.
The degree to which the tea party caucus seems determined to make tonight their symbolic last stand is undeniably high, however. The climatic House GOP caucus on Saturday, when the group last decided to stick with anti-Obamacare provisions knowing they would not survive the Senate, was punctuated with a cry of “Let’s roll!” from John Culberson of Texas — who later said he was alluding to the cry of United 93 passenger Todd Beamer.
The allusion was apt: The passengers who took over that plane on Sept. 11 expected to die, but concluded their heroic self-sacrifice was worth it to save big-time harm to the country.
September 24, 2013
Wednesday’s anticlimactic vote on the continuing resolution — Ted Cruz’s pretzel-logic faux filibuster notwithstanding — isn’t the most important Senate move so far this week in the budget endgame.
That distinction belongs to the Democratic leadership decision to apply a much smaller patch to the broken spending machinery than what House Republicans united behind last week. The continuing resolution the Senate will pass, likely on Saturday, would keep the government operating for only the next seven weeks — until Nov. 15, exactly a month earlier than the date in the House bill.
The change, which will get ample GOP buy-in, will alter the rhythm of this fall’s multifaceted fiscal deliberations in several ways.
It means the second possibility for a partial government shutdown will come close on the heels of a potentially market-rattling showdown over the debt limit. It means appropriators will gain an opening to reassert a measure of relevance they haven’t enjoyed at the Capitol in nearly a decade. And it could mean still one more bite at the apple for conservative Republicans crusading to stop or slow Obamacare.
What it does not mean, however, is that the new target adjournment date for the first session of the 113th Congress is two Fridays before Thanksgiving. There’s bipartisan consensus that such an early departure is both legislatively unrealistic and politically unwise and that, even if an unexpected wave of functionality and deal-making appears, a second CR will be necessary to maintain running-in-place operations into December. (In the past decade, the earliest Congress has finished its work in a non-election year was Dec. 8, 2003.) Full story
Top Senate Democrats signaled today that they may amend the continuing resolution to last only seven weeks, to Nov. 15 instead of Dec. 15. That would move the fall’s second shutdown showdown to just after the looming dogfight over the debt limit.
The Democratic plan, which has not been finalized, would complicate this week’s stopgap spending imbroglio with a secondary issue that is important for many lawmakers but has nothing to do with the matter consuming the public’s attention. Conservative Republicans continue to demand that Obamacare be denied any funding in the new fiscal year as a condition for keeping the government open.
With the first test votes set for Wednesday — and top Republican leaders abandoning the quixotic filibuster effort orchestrated by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas —Democrats are sure that by the end of the weekend, they will be able to remove the defunding language from the bill the House passed last week. Full story
September 22, 2013
One week to go, and still no word from Capitol Hill officials about how the place is going to be different if there’s a partial government shutdown.
Don’t expect any such guidance before zero hour. The members who oversee congressional operations, and the administrators who implement the politicians’ policies, seem to have settled on a bipartisan, bicameral agreement: They won’t say anything in advance about what would keep operating normally, what would slow down and what would stop altogether after midnight on Sept. 30 in the absence of a completed continuing resolution.
That means the great existential question facing every government worker at a time like this — “Am I essential?” — will remain officially unanswered for more than 25,000 unelected legislative branch workers. The comforting, or enervating, word will only come if Congress doesn’t clear a CR on time. If there’s a stopgap spending accord, each job’s place in the congressional pecking order will remain a mystery, at least until the next deadline in December.
There are psychological and political reasons for this. Full story
September 18, 2013
Consider the notion that a deal is already baked and that sometime next week Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell will unspool a maneuver that not only averts a partial government shutdown but also saves Speaker John A. Boehner’s bacon.
The latest installment of fiscal brinkmanship is careening toward its climax. The intricate parliamentary moves being contemplated will strike some as unworthy of a great democracy. They will reaffirm for others a part of what makes our democracy so great — or at least so fascinating. Either way, the machinations are a reminder that mastering process is an indispensable part of making policy and an essential ingredient for political success. Full story
July 8, 2013
One of the most consequential effects of the sequester began today: Weekly unpaid furlough days for more than 650,000 civilian workers at the Defense Department, who will effectively see their pay cut by 20 percent for the final 11 weeks of this budget year.
All the commissaries at domestic military installations are closed, for example, and will be every Monday through the end of September. (Most agencies within the department have decided to salve the economic sting a tiny bit by setting the furloughs on Mondays and Fridays, so that workers might at least enjoy a series of long weekends.)
But the visuals of closed cafeterias, equipment maintenance sheds, supply warehouses, payroll offices and the like will have absolutely no effect on the pace of congressional effort toward untangling the budget morass. Full story
June 4, 2013
The House is moving ahead with its plan to pass the year’s first two spending bills before going home for the weekend Thursday afternoon. There’s bipartisan agreement, albeit for different reasons, to ignore President Barack Obama’s warning that lawmakers are wasting valuable legislative time.
The White House made its first symbolically important move in the 2014 appropriations game Monday, declaring the president would veto any measure that would carry out the stated aspirations of the majority Republicans in the House.
The GOP’s opening gambit, in turn, is to write a dozen bills that would essentially cancel next year’s sequester cuts for national security enterprises and come up with the necessary money by imposing deeper-than-sequester cuts on social and domestic programs.
The administration says the whole annual appropriations process should be put on hold until the GOP House and Democratic Senate settle on an overarching budget blueprint that would turn off the sequester altogether, presumably with some combination of entitlement curbs and revenue enhancements. But, daily posturing on both sides notwithstanding, that’s nowhere close to happening.
And so House leaders on both sides agreed without hardly a word of discussion to press ahead and to encourage their rank-and-file to vote however they choose on the initial appropriations bills. Both measures support programs with near-universal political appeal: The one debated Tuesday would boost spending on veterans programs by 3 percent while cutting the military construction budget. The one coming up Wednesday would provide a 2 percent increase to the Homeland Security Department. Full story