Here we go again. As Congress returns from its recess, it faces a potential government shutdown. Lawmakers will have only a few days to prevent the government from running out of money.
Members of Congress have known about this deadline since December, when they passed the last stop-gap funding bill, and the fact that they’ve again let negotiations wait until the last possible moment shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re simply following a disappointing, decades-long pattern.
But with Republicans holding control of all branches of government, another half-hearted attempt to negotiate any kind of spending limitation is a big letdown — especially after their earnestly campaigned-upon commitments to finally get control over government spending.
How will Congress stave off a shutdown? Most likely with an omnibus spending bill — an amalgamation of 11 year-long spending bills crammed into one legislative behemoth. (There are 12 annual spending bills, and the House already passed the fiscal year 2017 defense spending bill earlier this year).
While agencies will cheer not having to deal with what’s called a continuing resolution — a straight extension of last year’s funding levels that allows no room for shifting spending priorities — an omnibus is certainly nothing to be proud of.
Spending bills are ideally considered one at a time so that lawmakers can debate funding levels, program effectiveness and changes in national priorities.
During such debate, Congress is able to weigh the merits of programs in light of the larger fiscal picture. For example, what reforms should be made to Medicaid to prevent further improper payments? More than $142 billion’s worth have been made since 2009. Or, when the country is $20 trillion in debt, should the Commerce Department really be spending $1.7 million on a National Comedy Center that will resurrect dead comedians as holograms?
This is precisely the type of debate that should be happening — but won’t.
By ignoring the opportunity to use this spending deadline to enact genuine reforms, Republicans are ignoring the voters who asked them to manage the country’s spending.
Worse still, they look to be ignoring the funding priorities of their own president. Trump has asked Congress to fund a border wall, boost spending on ongoing defense operations and to assist his Justice Department in enforcing federal immigration laws against sanctuary cities.
However, Republicans leaders have given mixed signals regarding their commitment to addressing his requests — which, by the way, reflect some of the key campaign promises that got him elected.
This political tone deafness isn’t going unnoticed by the electorate. Though Republicans have long been viewed as the more responsible party when it comes to fiscal affairs, a new Pew Research Center report shows Democrats are now the more trusted party when it comes to representing people’s views on spending.
The GOP has so little credibility on spending that the Democrats — the party that during the Obama years added $1 trillion in taxes and grew the deficit by a breathtaking $9 trillion — or 86 percent — are now more trusted to spend taxpayer money.
If that’s not a wake-up call for Republicans, I’m not sure what could be.
Rather than meet this current spending deadline with their usual laxness, Republicans should instead meet it as an opportunity. They should use it to enact key spending reforms, help the president keep his campaign promises and, ultimately, show the country how a governing party responsibly manages a country in fiscal crisis.
If the GOP can’t muster the will to do this now — during the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency and in the fourth month of their unified government — then when?
They have the opportunity and the mandate. Now all they need is the will.
Republicans ran on having the answers to a debt so large it’s threatening to overtake the entire country’s output. It’s time for them to prove it.
Rachel Bovard is director of policy services at The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C., 20002; Website: www.heritage.org. Information about Heritage’s funding may be found at http://www.heritage.org/about/reports.cfm.