By Christian Flinn
In a turn of events widely seen as a reflection on the House’s inability to compromise on spending cuts and pass a budget, the Senate Budget Committee has decided to push back its own consideration of an annual budget. In addition to the House’s budget indecision, however, a host of factors underlie Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) choosing this course of action.
First, provisions in the two-year budget deal struck in 2015 set discretionary spending levels through 2017. The two-year bipartisan deal was supposed to make reaching a budget deal in an election year much easier. It hasn’t. Some hardcore fiscal House Republicans are balking at the increased spending that was part of outgoing Speaker John Boehner’s plan to avoid the possibility of government gridlock. The Senate Majority Leader has repeatedly said that passing a budget every year is required by law. But in an apparent contradiction of that statement, Chairman Enzi said, “The Senate already has top-line numbers and budget enforcement features available this year so that a regular order appropriations process can move forward while we continue to discuss broader budget challenges.”
In further analyzing this apparent Republican shift, other factors also point toward the tense political atmosphere in Washington delaying – or even precluding – a budget agreement in 2016. For starters, around 24 Republican Senators are either up for reelection or retiring while only 10 Democrats are in that position. This means that, aside from being associated with a Presidential Primary race many have termed a political “circus” on the Republican side, the already tenuous majority held by Republicans in the Senate would have to campaign for a host of heavily politicized issues in order to pass a budget. Because the Senators would be carrying all the risk in the event that voters disagree with their version of the country’s budgetary future, it is unsurprising that postponement has surfaced. The move is reminiscent of Democrats “skipping” budgets when they controlled the chamber – something for which they were often heavily criticized by Republicans.
What is more, both chambers are facing complications appeasing members who are already unhappy with the funding levels agreed to in 2015. On the Senate side, which currently includes 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents that caucus with the Democrats, Chairman Enzi could only afford to lose 3 votes in order to retain the necessary majority to pass a strictly partisan budget. The House is facing a similar, if more complicated, problem, with Republicans having to compromise not just with those across the aisle but with those on the far-right of their own party. The decision by the Senate to postpone budget consideration will likely fuel these tensions in the House, where already skeptical members will feel even less pressure to compromise.
In addition to the political problems delaying budget negotiations, the reality is that the cooperation witnessed between Democrats and Republicans in December 2015 is now nowhere to be seen. Republicans in both chambers have already refused to allow the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to come before their respective budget committees and testify in support of the President’s 2017 Budget. Adding kindle to the political fire, Republicans have also said they would refuse to confirm an Obama Supreme Court Justice nominee, instead preferring to wait until after the Presidential Election in November. Both actions have caused outrage on the Democratic side and, together with postponing budget negotiations, are indicative of a general air of animosity and political uncertainty permeating the decision-making process – or lack thereof – on Capitol Hill.
The congressional budget resolution – which precedes action on each of the 12 appropriations bills – was supposed to be agreed to by March 15th. Chairman Enzi has tried to downplay concerns by stating that, if necessary, he can file for the amounts from last year’s budget agreement and still bring a House approved budget to the Senate floor even after the March 15th deadline. Despite this, there is a real question whether a budget will ever be agreed to. In the past, under Democratic leadership, the Senate has managed to act on its appropriations bills without even bringing a single one of them to the floor for a vote, while the House has adopted its own budget resolution and then acted on the individual funding bills with committee and floor votes. In 2016, even that cobbled-together approach of funding the government looks like it will require more Republican unity than currently exists.
For further information, contact Christian Flinn at Christian.Flinn@warwickconsultants.net.