"I have no idea” a key Republican senator said yesterday when asked about the next step to craft a budget deal to continue federal funding in FY 2014 following an announcement that high level talks had ended. A week from tomorrow marks the final month of the current fiscal year, and Senator Bob Corker’s (R-TN) statement, as quoted in the Washington Post, is just the latest indication that no solution is in sight to the continuing division in Washington about federal spending.
Congress has two major items on its fiscal agenda in September: providing funding for FY 2014 that begins on October 1, and raising the national debt limit to avoid a default. There is a persistent hope that both can be resolved in a so-called “grand bargain” that would include other changes in federal spending such as entitlement reform. If a deal can be struck there is the possibility that the second year of mandated budget cuts – or sequestration – could be eliminated.
As it now stands, these mandated cuts are making it difficult to write appropriations bills that could be enacted. The Senate has not passed any of its appropriations bills. The House has passed four of twelve appropriations bills, including that for the Department of Energy. The outlook for passage of the other bills in the House is very uncertain. On July 31, the House was scheduled to consider the Transportation and Housing bill. It was pulled from the floor by the leadership because there were not enough votes to pass it.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) is serving his 17th term in Congress, and is widely regarded as well-versed in the art of the possible on Capitol Hill. His remarks on July 31 were about the Transportation and Housing bill, but apply to all of the federal appropriations bills that will ultimately have to be enacted in some form to provide funding for the next fiscal year. His statement is quoted in full:
“The Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development funding bill that was pulled from floor consideration today was the first major attempt by the House to consider and pass an Appropriations bill that funds domestic programs under the austere level delineated under the Budget Control Act and the House budget resolution.
“The bill today reflected the best possible effort, under an open process, to fund programs important to the American people - including our highway, air and rail systems, housing for our poorest families, and improvements to local communities - while also making the deep cuts necessary under the current budget cap. In order to abide by sequestration budget levels, this bill cut $4.4 billion below the current, post-sequestration total to a level below what was approved for these programs in 2006 -- over seven years ago.
“I am extremely disappointed with the decision to pull the bill from the House calendar today. The prospects for passing this bill in September are bleak at best, given the vote count on passage that was apparent this afternoon. With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago. Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration - and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts - must be brought to an end. And, it is also clear that the higher funding levels advocated by the Senate are also simply not achievable in this Congress.
“This Congress must now deal in a productive way to address the nation’s crippling deficits and debt to put our budget back on a sustainable and responsible path. This means that all government programs - not just those on the discretionary side of the ledger - must be reduced. Spending reductions in mandatory and entitlement programs, which are the drivers of our deficits and debt, are the most effective way to enact meaningful change in the trajectory of federal spending. The House, Senate and White House must come together as soon as possible on a comprehensive compromise that repeals sequestration, takes the nation off this lurching path from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, reduces our deficits and debt, and provides a realistic topline discretionary spending level to fund the government in a responsible - and attainable - way.”
Congress returns to Washington on September 9. It will have nine legislative days to craft a plan, which at best will be a short-term solution, to continue the operations of the federal government beyond September 30.