Time is running out for Congress to settle on budget
WASHINGTON — Congress returns from recess Monday to reckon with the looming threat of a government shutdown and the likelihood that no matter what resolution lawmakers reach for the stalled budget process, appropriations for the military will fall short of what the service chiefs say they need.
Temporary government funding – the second stopgap bill since 2016 spending ran out in September -- expires Friday, giving lawmakers five days to break through deep political impasse and pass an omnibus appropriations bill that includes defense.
Bipartisan leaders from both houses have been working behind closed doors to reach consensus on the omnibus deal that would not resolve long-term spending issues but would take some of the immediate burden off the Department of Defense. Before the break, service chiefs testified before the House Armed Services Committee that continuing the stopgap funding measures could devastate military readiness – halting critical training, grounding ships and aircraft and disrupting pay raises and bonuses for servicemembers
Congressional leaders had voiced optimism – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said two weeks ago that he believed the bill would be passed by the deadline. But White House maneuverings appear to have soured those hopes. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told The Associated Press that President Donald Trump is insisting on funding for a wall on the Mexican border – a nonstarter for Democrats -- that prompted reports negotiations had stalled.
“Everything had been moving smoothly until the administration moved in with a heavy hand,” said Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Not only are the Democrats opposed to the wall, there is significant Republican opposition as well.”
Given the challenges to an omnibus spending deal and the alternative of triggering a government shutdown, there’s a strong chance legislators will put yet another patch in place that will buy them more time to iron out the 2017 budget or kick the can down the road to the 2018 budget battle.
Either way, defense spending will likely feel the pinch -- not exactly the military boon that a Republican Congress and presidency had advertised, said Mark Cancian, a former senior official in the Office of Management and Budget and a retired Marine Corps colonel.
“There just isn’t enough money to maintain the military we want, no matter how you slice it,” said Cancian, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“It’s the money, not the mechanism,” he said. “They can avoid the kind of disasters people have talked about – for example, the troops not getting paid. But the overall (defense) funding disaster is true.”
Lawmakers have been at loggerheads over spending and have failed to pass a defense spending bill on time for the better part of a decade. To tide the Pentagon over, they frequently implement a temporary patch known as a continuing resolution that locks defense spending at prior year levels with no ability to expand, add training or start new projects or programs – or halt old ones.
Last fall, with elections looming, lawmakers passed a three-month resolution in October at the start of the 2017 fiscal year. After the election of President Donald Trump, they passed a second resolution in December to allow the new Republican president to weigh in. That one expires Friday.
Trump has proposed a big defense buildup for 2018 and a supplemental increase for 2017 of $30 billion. The supplemental funding would help the services recover from the steady drip of underfunding, stemming from continued CRs, a 2013 shutdown that hobbled the force and the impacts of sequestration – across-the-board budget cuts triggered by the 2011 Budget Control Act, a measure aimed at forcing Congress to reach agreement on reducing the deficit by creating spending caps.
In March, the House passed a $578 billion defense spending bill for 2017 – a modest plan that came in close enough to those caps that avoiding sequestration is possible -- but there has been no Senate legislation. The Senate’s 52 Republicans would need eight Democrats to pass the spending bill, but experts say any compromise for Democrats will alienate conservative Republicans who support Trump’s push to cut domestic spending. Democrats want every added dollar for defense to be matched for domestic spending.
In addition to ideological obstacles, observers say Democratic senators are likely to be less inclined to compromise after the Senate majority leader pushed through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch in early April by imposing an unprecedented rule change that stifled debate over the nation’s top justices.
Democrats also have political incentive to let the government shut down, as damaging as it might be to programs, said Paul Brace, an author and professor of political science at Rice University in Houston.
“It will make the Republicans look awful,” Brace said. “There’s no middle ground for the Democrats in the budget, so why not step back and let the Republicans deal with the heat?”
Republicans are also divided over spending. While defense hawks like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairmen of the armed services committees, want to see a huge spike in defense spending, deficit hawks believe that should be offset by cuts to domestic spending, which Democrats can’t stomach.
Mulvaney was plucked from the fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus to direct the White House Office of Management and Budget. He has insisted that the $30 billion supplemental funding for defense be offset by $18 billion in domestic cuts. The supplemental seeks to boost shortfalls in personnel, training, operations, maintenance, procurement and modernization.
Mulvaney told the AP that the White House delivered an offer to negotiators Wednesday night that set as top demands funding for the border wall, the $30 billion supplement and a controversial provision allowing the administration to deny certain grants to cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
“We want wall funding. We want (immigration) agents. Those are our priorities,” Mulvaney said. “We know there are a lot of people on the Hill, especially in the Democratic Party, who don’t like the wall, but they lost the election. And the president should, I think, at least have the opportunity to fund one of his highest priorities in the first funding bill under his administration.”
The White House demands appear to be endangering what had been described as good headway in the negotiations. Earlier in the month, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a key negotiator, told reporters that the $3 billion for Trump’s wall wouldn’t be worth shutting down the government over and could be dealt with at a later date, CNN reported.
In his AP interview, Mulvaney dangled an olive branch, saying that the administration was open to compromise on a key Democratic demand involving the Affordable Care Act -- continued funding for cost-sharing insurance payments that help low-income people afford health policies. This is a departure from Trump’s threats to withhold subsidies to force Democrats to negotiate on health-care legislation.
Schumer has warned that if the Republicans insist on the wall funding, Democrats will opt for a government shutdown and his spokesman drove that home.
“The White House gambit to hold hostage health care for millions of Americans, in order to force American taxpayers to foot the bill for a wall that the president said would be paid for by Mexico is a complete non-starter,” Matt House said Friday. “If the administration would drop their 11th hour demand for a wall that Democrats and a good number of Republicans oppose, Congressional leaders could quickly reach a deal.”
One thing everyone seems to agree on: Another continuing resolution is bad for the business of governing and particularly bad for defense.
McCain declared before the break that he would rather force a shutdown than vote for another CR.
Paul Scharre, a senior fellow and director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, said the current budget crisis reflects the broken process.
“Defense has been held hostage to this broader budgetary gridlock for years, and what’s pretty apparent is that having Republicans in control of all of government doesn’t really fix that,” Scharre said. “I think it’s going to be a rough road for the next couple of years for defense spending.”
Scharre said defense officials have their hands tied. They don’t have enough funding for the missions the government is tasking them with, but Congress won’t let them make any long-term cuts or address the possibility that America has to alter its role in the world if it wants to cut defense spending to Budget Control Act levels.
The likely solution, he said, is another temporary fix: funneling extra money to defense through Overseas Contingency Operations, an emergency war fund that does not fall under the Budget Control Act and has been used to skirt the political logjam. If lawmakers opt for another CR, defense will get enough to cover payroll for the troops and some continued training and maintenance.
It’s not a long-term solution, but using the non-capped war fund, the military could muddle through, Cancian said. At least until Congress picks up the next hot potato: the 2018 spending bill, with Trump’s proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending.