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Members of Congress have left Washington, D.C., for their summer recess. There’s nothing unusual about wanting to get out of the capital during the summer heat.
This year, however, members of the House and Senate may face an especially daunting task when they return after Labor Day: Passing a budget to fund the federal government before Oct. 1 at a time when Congress is deeply split. It is, sadly, not new for Congress to put off budget decisions until the last minute. But, this year seems especially perilous with some members seeking deep spending cuts and some using the budget to try to advance social policies.
Talking (and writing) about a federal government shutdown now feels almost a bit irresponsible. We, and others who are talking about the possibility of a shutdown, don’t intend to spread fear. But, given how far apart the parties are on some issues, and how divided the House Republican caucus appears to be, concerns about the difficulty of passing essential spending bills in less than a month seem well founded.
The Associated Press offered this straightforward explanation. “Congress has until Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, to act on government funding. They could pass spending bills to fund government agencies into next year, or simply pass a stopgap measure that keeps agencies running until they strike a longer-term agreement. No matter which route they take, it won’t be easy.”
It won’t be easy for political reasons. But, Senate appropriators, including Sen. Susan Collins, who is vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, actually offered a blueprint for how things can get done.
For the first time since 2018, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed the 12 bills needed to fund the federal government. And, they did so in a strong bipartisan fashion; votes on seven of the spending bills were unanimous.
“There’s more to do: we still have to get these bills passed through the full Senate, and House, and signed into law—and that is our focus moving forward,” Collins and the committee’s chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said in a statement last week. “However, what this committee has achieved over the last several weeks shows that it is possible for Congress to work together and work through real differences — to find common ground and produce serious, bipartisan bills that can be signed into law.”
That is what members of Congress were elected to do — to find common ground and to produce serious legislation.
In the Republican-controlled House, that is not what is happening with spending bills. A coalition of conservative House members is pushing to cut spending, well below the levels agreed to as part of an agreement earlier this year to avoid a debt ceiling crisis. Many conservative Republicans are also pushing to include measures — like restrictions on abortion and medical care for transgender Americans — that are not directly related to federal spending.
Such measures likely doom any House-passed spending plans in the Senate.
Some House members are also downplaying the consequences of a shutdown.
“We should not fear a government shutdown,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Virginia, said at a House Freedom Caucus press conference last week, the Associated Press reported. “Most of the American people won’t even miss it if the government is shut down temporarily.”
This is a very dangerous — and erroneous — perspective. Millions of Americans could be impacted if the government is closed, no matter how long.
Further, it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to shut down, and reopen, government operations. This is a huge waste of money for a group that touts fiscal responsibility.
“I don’t want the government to shut down,” Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said at a press conference last week. “I want to find that we can find common ground.”
That’s the right standard, but McCarthy is likely to have a hard time finding common ground, with some members of his caucus, with Democrats and with the Senate.
Still, we hope that lawmakers enjoy their summer vacation. When they return to the capitol in September, they will have a short time to set aside their political differences to pass spending plans that will keep the federal government operational. The collaborative work of the Senate Appropriations Committee shows how it can be done.