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Brinkmanship is the new normal in Congress. Like college students (and, frankly, sometimes journalists too) with an assignment due, the real work often doesn’t start until the pressure of a deadline hits.
It’s not the best way to produce a paper or a story, and it certainly is not the best way to govern.
Yet, here we are again, with a big dose of political maneuvering thrown into the mix.
If Congress does not pass a spending measure by Thursday, much of the federal government would be forced to shut down. For those who might say “good, the federal government is a waste of money anyway,” remember the government provides vital services and it is made up of our neighbors, friends and family who work for a myriad of government agencies. When these workers aren’t paid and these services aren’t provided, there are ripple effects throughout our economy.
Also, if Congress doesn’t vote to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October, the U.S. government may not be able to pay its bills on time, again sending big ripples through our economy. These loans, by the way, cover past government spending. Raising the debt ceiling is about ensuring the U.S. can continue to pay off debt it has already accrued; it is not about approving future spending (that is a separate fight).
Rather than moving ahead expeditiously to address both of these looming problems, leaders in Congress remain intent on scoring political points, essentially blaming the other political party for failing to take action.
Simply put, Congress needs to pass a spending plan, called a continuing resolution, to fund the government going forward. As an aside, Congress should really be passing appropriations bills through so-called regular order. But, Congress is so dysfunctional that the full budgeting process has largely been sidelined in favor of continuing resolutions, which continue existing funding for a set period of time.
Congress also needs to raise the debt ceiling, as it has done 17 times in the past 20 years, with Democrats and Republicans in charge of the House and Senate, and White House.
A bill to do both passed the House last week on a party-line 220-211 vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. The bill, which would extend government funding through Dec. 3 and raise the debt limit through the end of 2022, also includes more than $6 billion to aid in resettling Afghan refugees in America and more than $28 billion for communities hit by recent natural disasters.
The bill failed to advance in the Senate on Monday when all the chamber’s Republicans voted against beginning consideration of the measure. Republicans argue that Democrats alone should raise the debt ceiling, with the fallacious argument that Democrats are responsible for the rise in the U.S. debt. During its four years, the Trump administration added nearly $8 trillion to the debt, much of it from the 2017 tax cuts. That’s the third biggest increase, relative to the size of the economy, of any president.
This debate is further clouded by Republicans tying the debt limit increase to the Democrats’ proposal for $3.5 trillion in spending on a host of initiatives, including reducing child care, college costs and health care costs and boosting clean energy and workforce training. This Build Back Better plan warrants a lot of debate, but it is not the reason for the needed debt ceiling increase.
There is further political posturing behind the Republican move to push Democrats to raise the debt ceiling on their own. If a debt ceiling increase is done as part of a budget measure that requires only 50 votes (plus one from the vice president) for passage, budget rules require that the debt ceiling must be raised to a specific number — say $40 trillion (the national debt is currently a little over $28 trillion) — not to a specific date. You can imagine the ads Republicans would create to blast Democrats for approving this much debt. Hence, Democrats’ efforts to make sure Republicans share the blame for growth in debt, which is warranted.
The easy answer to this impasse is to break the measure in two, with a quick vote on a continuing resolution by Thursday. The debate on the debt ceiling would be pushed until next month. That won’t take the politics out of it, but it gives lawmakers a chance to do their jobs before going over the brink. Twice.