Budget dysfunctions are the wages of excessive partisanship
George Washington warned us about this.
In my last column, I wrote about my long-held belief that our two-party system and partisan nominating primaries significantly contribute to lousy governance. There is no greater, or consequential, example than the current budget dysfunction in Congress.
The extent of the irresponsibility of House Republicans is best measured against the way the process is supposed to work, as formally stated in law as part of the Budget Act.
According to law, both chambers are supposed to agree on a budget resolution establishing overall spending levels by April 15. The House is then supposed to approve specific appropriations bills comporting with the budget resolution by June 30. That gives three entire months before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, plenty of time for the Senate to make any changes in the House appropriations bills and the two chambers to resolve any differences.
None of that happened this year. None of that happens any year, irrespective of which party is in charge.
Funding the federal government is the most important function of Congress, and the only thing that it absolutely has to do.
Rather than give priority to the first and singular duty of the House and get appropriations bills passed by the June 30 Budget Act deadline, Republicans have occupied themselves with partisan politics: investigations of the Biden administration; investigations of Hunter Biden, a private citizen; passage of messaging legislation with no chance of becoming law, given Democratic control of the Senate and presidency.
And, now that the deadline for funding the government is fast approaching and a shutdown looms, partisan politics are still being given priority.
While a formal budget resolution wasn’t passed, the agreement to raise the debt ceiling included an ad hoc one. The agreement included a cap on discretionary spending growth of 1% for the next two budget years. The Biden administration has requested $40 billion in supplemental spending on top of the spending cap for aid to Ukraine, disaster relief, and border security.
A reasonable argument could be had as to whether the $40 billion should be subject to the cap or appropriated in addition to it. But a small faction of the GOP caucus wants to ignore the debt ceiling agreement and hold spending to $120 billion below its spending cap.
I agree that more serious spending restraint is needed and warranted, given the sorry state of the federal government’s finances and the blowout spending sprees over the last few years. But that is not going to happen this session given the current political configuration, with Democratic control of the Senate and presidency.
In fact, there is a broad, bipartisan consensus in Congress about the appropriate spending level for next fiscal year. A bill setting overall spending at the debt ceiling limit plus the Biden administration's supplemental request would probably pass both chambers with around 70% approval.
Rather than taking the obvious, bipartisan consensus to the floor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has been working overtime to pass an exclusively Republican budget proposal that has no chance of becoming law even as a government shutdown looms. In other words, making a partisan point is more important to McCarthy than keeping the government open.
Of course, if he took the obvious, bipartisan consensus to the floor, he might very well become ex-Speaker McCarthy. But that is also because of the domination of excessive partisanship.
Given the close division in the House, the speaker should be someone the majority of Republicans support and who is willing to work with the Democrats and whom they can tolerate. But the dictates of partisanship hold that the speaker has to get all his votes from his own party. Which means that the post goes to someone like McCarthy, who is a partisan warrior with little interest in working with Democrats. And it means that just five Republicans can give McCarthy the boot.
Unseemly partisan considerations also infect the calculations of the House Democratic caucus. If McCarthy should do the right thing and finally start to move the broad, bipartisan consensus, would Democrats provide the votes to pass it and to rescue McCarthy’s speakership? Or would they let Republicans stew in their partisan incompetence, the better to secure a Democratic takeover in 2024?
Given that there is a broad, bipartisan consensus about spending levels for next fiscal year, that there will either be a government shutdown or it will be a very close-run thing is an astonishing indictment of our system of government. And, in my view, the proximate cause of the gross dysfunction is partisan primary nominating elections. They end up electing too many people for whom scoring partisan points is more important than governing.
Arizona has two congressmen, Andy Biggs and Eli Crane, willing to shut down the government to make a partisan point that has no chance of becoming law. I can’t imagine that more than a small faction of the electorate in either of their districts would think that’s a good idea. But partisan primaries, where that small faction has disproportionate influence, will probably protect them from political accountability for their actions.
The problem, however, is much bigger than the handful of Republicans gumming up McCarthy’s gambit. Biggs and Crane aren’t responsible for the failure of Republicans to move appropriations bills according to the Budget Act timeline. Biggs and Crane aren’t responsible for McCarthy’s decision to pursue a GOP-only budget proposal with no chance of becoming law, rather than facilitate the broad, bipartisan consensus. Biggs and Crane enjoy the power the domination of partisan considerations in Congress gives them over McCarthy and events, but they did not create that system.
George Washington, in his farewell address, warned about “the baneful effects of the spirit of party”. When those baneful effects include the inability to timely fund the federal government, despite there being a broad, bipartisan consensus about it, the influence of the “spirit of party” needs, somehow, to be sharply diminished.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.