The congressional nutcases have a point
Why all the drama over the budgeting process? How can a handful of legislators block the entire process? Why are they doing it?
Establishing the federal budget is a long and very complicated and contentious process. I shall try to offer a simple explanation.
Before getting into the issues of today, we need to understand the process of producing a federal budget – at least how it is supposed to work. The first thing to keep in mind is that the budget process officially starts in the House. So how does it all start?
- The various departments and agencies of government present budget requests. They always ask for more money than the previous year even if they have tons of money left over. They try to spend the overage asap at the end of the budget year so that they look like they need more money. It is called “fourth quarter dumping.” The requests go to various House committees for review.
- The House also gets budget requests from the White House for new or expanded programs. This is known as the White House budget, but it is only a recommendation, the House establishes the official budget.
- All the requests that flow into the various committees and subcommittees of the House are then consolidated into 12 major budget areas. These are then SUPPOSED to be considered and passed by 12 subcommittees of the Appropriations Committee. They are Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Interior, Labor, Legislative Branch, Military, Foreign Operations, and Transportation. Then the entire package is voted on by the ENTIRE House after debate.
- The budget goes to the Senate which passes the budget after some debate.
- When approved by both the House and the Senate, the budget goes to the President to be signed or vetoed.
It has worked that way for most of America’s history. But NOT in recent years. The Congress has devised a system of circumventing the budgeting process by … NOT producing and passing a budget. In fact, Congress has not produced a budget since _____. Instead, they use something called a “Continuing Resolutions” (CR) or “omnibus appropriation bills.” The Congress uses the CR to continue the old budget … almost. The CR carries the old numbers forward with a few tweaks to allow for increases, of course.
A CR can extend the budget for months or merely days. It merely establishes the next crisis date. If the House fails to pass a CR, the government shuts down – well almost. Essential services continue operating for an extended period.
Instead of Congress debating and passing the 12 appropriation bills as intended, they may lump them all into one gigantic and unmanageable bill called an “omnibus.” It is much too large to debate, so the House votes on it with blinders on.
What is going on today?
Based on media reports, you might think that a half dozen Republican legislators are holding up the entire budgeting process and causing a shutdown. But that is impossible. A handful of legislators cannot block the process unless it has help – lots of help. And where is that help coming from? THE DEMOCRATS. There are more than enough votes in the House to pass a CR – and even a bipartisan budget. But Democrats are standing on the sidelines. They are refusing to vote on any CR until all the Republicans first agree to vote on it. In which case they will not need to vote on it. They are refusing to participate because they do not like the GOP proposed bill.
The second roadblock to resolution is Speaker McCarthy. He has the power to call up bills for a vote – or not. Under modern traditions of dysfunction, Speakers do not call for a vote until they have all the votes on their side locked in. If McCarthy puts the CR up for a vote, it would be up to the Democrats to either provide votes or be shown as the real culprits behind a shutdown.
McCarthy has a unique problem. If he were to negotiate with Democrats, that handful of Republican holdouts would have the power to put his speakership on the line – perhaps even oust him. As a profile in courage, he should tell the holdouts to fall in line, or he WILL seek Democrat votes. And that is exactly what he should do.
McCarthy does not have all the votes needed to advance a GOP-only measure. Ergo … he does not call for a vote – and the Democrats watch from the gallery. That means gridlock – and that means shutdown.
Even if McCarthy gets all the votes from his caucus to pass a purely Republican Budget in the House, it is likely to fail in the senate. That also means gridlock and shutdown. In short it is the Democrats and McCarthy that are enabling that handful of holdouts to control the process.
If Democrats are to be involved, they want to be in on the debate. That means the process has to be bipartisan – which now it is not. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries could go to McCarthy and say, “put more spending in the bill and I will give you all the votes you need.” Spending is the great divide between Democrats and Republicans – especially those few holdouts refusing to vote for a CR that does not cut spending.
In terms of the big picture, the handful of so-called nutcases are not wrong. Federal spending is dangerously out of control – and has been for a long time. Almost half of all federal spending (40%) is covered by borrowing.
Every time we come up to one of these deadlines, the big spenders push for a quick and temporary resolution with a promise that afterward there will be serious efforts to cut the federal budget. But … that never happens – and the reckless spending goes on and on … and on.
Those considered the nutcases – with some justification – are arguably the most fiscally responsible members of Congress. They want to get uncontrolled spending and borrowing reined in. They are taking the long-term view. McCarthy, most of the Republican caucus and all Democrats are following the business-as-usual approach.
You can criticize their strategies and modus operandi of the holdouts, but at the bottom line, they are nutcases who are not entirely crazy.
So, there ‘tis.