The calendar will soon read September.
In Washington, it may as well read “Debtember.” Deficit spending will dominate the month in Washington.
While congressional Republicans champion efforts to cut federal spending and slash the swelling national debt, they’ll have little chance to cut federal dollars in the next few weeks.
Consider what’s on the congressional docket.
Congress must approve a catchall, massive spending measure to fund the government beyond Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year. A slate of 12 annual appropriations bills pay for every government program. The House approved a conglomeration of four spending bills in July. The Senate hasn’t touched any of those. The House is now trying desperately to advance the remaining eight bills – if for no reason than to brag that it did its job and passed the necessary bills. But without Senate cooperation, that leaves the House and Senate one option: a “Continuing Resolution” or CR, a stopgap spending bill to fund the government for a short period of time and avoid a government shutdown.
The government shutters if there’s no spending plan in place by Oct. 1.
But there’s a problem with a CR when it comes to deficit spending: CR’s simply renew old funding to keep the government afloat. Congress can wield more authority and actually reduce spending if it individually approves the 12 annual appropriations bills. Granted, the total price tag of those 12 bills usually jumps each year. But Congress can better control spending if it handles the bills one by one rather than glomming everything together in a gigantic package.
This will be deficit spending.
Then there’s the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
President Trump already characterized the federal relief effort as a “costly proposition.” We mentioned the 12 yearly spending bills. Well, an emergency supplemental measure is essentially a “13th” appropriations bill.
After Harvey, House Appropriations Committee Spokeswoman Jennifer Hing says her panel is now studying “the needs and timing of those needs. The Committee remains fully committed to providing what is necessary for relief and recovery.”
Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., once suggested that lawmakers would provide disaster aid – after first mining federal spending for offsetting cuts. That may be a good actuarial approach. But it’s bad politics when a storm washed people out of their homes and they’re clamoring for food and shelter.
No one knows how much Harvey will cost. It will take weeks to assess. Expect Congress to approve an initial installment for relief in September. Lawmakers will most likely cough up a larger payout in late fall or December.
Certainly the relief aid is the right thing to do.
But it’s all deficit spending.
Many critics pointed out that only 49 House Republicans backed a relief plan in 2013 after Superstorm Sandy spun through the Northeast. Some GOPers voted no, citing the “pork” that lawmakers loaded onto that measure. The bill included funding for Head Start and dollars for fisheries in Alaska.
“We will craft this bill with no pork,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“This has to be targeted for disaster relief and recovery from Hurricane Harvey,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas.
That said, “extras” are almost always a part of big spending bills. Aid after Superstorm Sandy cracked more than $60 billion. One can easily see Harvey costing well over $100 billion.
Again, all deficit spending.
Then there’s the federal flood insurance program. It’s due for reauthorization by the end of September and running a $25 billion debt due to Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
Congress must figure out a way to reauthorize the program and extend a line of credit to keep it running. That proposition alone is worth tens of billions of dollars.
All deficit spending.
The adoption of a budget with reforms to entitlements would present lawmakers with the best opportunity to cut spending. Entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security make up more than two-thirds of all federal dollars. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney argued for a plan that would tackle the biggest drivers of the debt. But so far, the House and Senate remain stymied in efforts to approve a budget.
Finally, there’s the need to lift the federal debt ceiling in September. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wants a debt limit increase by Sept. 29. By its nature, upping the debt ceiling means more deficit spending. The federal government already obligated much of that spending via entitlements. Hurricane Harvey is generating previously unanticipated debt which could be substantial.
However, here’s the kicker.
Lawmakers often try to craft savings or offsets when Congress faces the need for a debt ceiling increase. Congress designed “sequestration,” a set of automatic, arbitrary spending cuts, in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling in 2011. But so far, there’s no plan for offsets.
Members of Congress loathe a debt ceiling vote. No one wants to vote for more debt, expected to exceed $21 trillion. But lawmakers may have no other choice.
Many lawmakers talk a good game about slashing federal spending and reining in the debt. But it’s hard to do. Debtember has arrived. And like it or not, lawmakers will spend most of the month approving more deficit spending.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.