It is with some disappointment, but little surprise, that I note that it appears this Congress is going to do no better than the last several in seriously addressing our nation’s needs. The elements of a “do nothing Congress” remain in place. Sadly, this seems particularly true in the Senate with 5 Senators running for president (currently one Democrat and four Republicans) portending that there probably will be more grandstanding and less legislating in the months to come.
Three examples (there are other similar cases) outline my pessimism. They are the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the Highway Trust Fund (part of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Authorization Bill, known as “THUD”) and the Authorization for the use Of Military Force (AUMF or “Anti-ISIS Bill”).
At this point let me do a quick refresher on spending bills 101 in the U.S. Congress. Authorization Bills set policy and funding limits for an agency or program. They do not allow for the actual expenditure of money. An Appropriations Bill is needed to actually spend money and sometimes, although a program is authorized, it does not receive the money — or at least all of the money — they thought they were going to have. Authorizations have no real Constitutional basis but are the result of the way Congress has handled such issues since roughly the Civil War. Appropriations are necessary under the Constitution in order for the federal government to spend money. Authorizations usually cover two years (except for the Department of Defense which is done every year) while appropriations for all agencies and programs are done annually.
Throw on top of all of this that the Congress, and the federal government, are still operating under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 — commonly known as “sequestration” or the draconian spending limits Congress set for itself to force a compromise, and then did not implement one, thus leaving those draconian cuts in place.
So what, you may ask? First let’s take a look at the 2016 NDAA, and unfortunately, we must dig into the weeds a bit more. In order to bypass the sequestration spending limits the Republican Congress proposes to put $38 billion into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. The OCO is used to pay for war fighting and counter-terrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Instead, the proposed bill directs the Defense Department to use the money (or at least a substantial portion of it) to pay for core costs that should be paid for under the regular budget accounts. This is a direct attempt to over-ride sequestration for the Defense Department. Why do this? Because under the law, to increase Defense spending, cuts must be made in other areas of an already tight budget and the Republican leadership is not willing to do that. Democrats are threatening to block the NDAA and the president is threatening to veto it for two reasons. One, they think the hard choices should be made. Two, and more importantly to them, they think there are domestic programs that need increases as well. Part of the “deal” with the BCA was that all parties would suffer in order to force a compromise. It didn’t happen and now, the Democrats argue, Republicans are trying to implement different rules for Defense than those that were originally agreed upon. No one is sure what will happen in the coming days and weeks. Democrats do not want to look “anti-defense” and yet they cannot allow this budgetary legerdemain to stand as it will set a precedent that probably is not good for the long-term fiscal or policy interests of the U.S. And remember, this is just the authorization bill, they have yet to fully grapple with the appropriations bill that will actually spend money.
Similarly the Highway Trust Fund — used to build and maintain the nation’s federal highways, bridges and the like — is due to go bankrupt. No agreement could be reached on how to fund it so for the thirty-third time (33!) in the past six years, a continuing resolution keeps it in operation until 31 July of this year. The Highway Trust Fund was established with the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and resulted in the interstate highway system that became the backbone of commerce in our country. It gets its money from the federal fuel tax, which has not been raised in 22 years even though expenditures are outpacing income and our infrastructure crumbles. There is little agreement on how to continue to fund the program. Many proposals made, none enacted. There is little expectation that anything substantive will happen in July.
Besides being political footballs, these two bills represent many others that impact our economy and the ability to get things done. Acquiring weapons, raising armies and navies and training the men and women to man them takes long-range planning, long-range contracts and long-range funding. Building roads and bridges likewise takes long-range planning and funding. When civilian contractors cannot expect to be reliably paid, they are reluctant to take on new work. This hampers us all. Most politicians agree that our defense is important (perhaps the most important thing that a national government does) and that our infrastructure needs significant upgrading and maintenance. These programs also produce jobs, jobs, jobs, of which every politician of every stripe argues we need more. Just get on with it.
Not tied to spending is the dithering over the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that President Obama sent to Congress in February to authorize our current military action against ISIS and other terrorist organizations. It is now ten months since we began air operations against them. Experts predict the AUMF will never come up for a vote. The most important role of Congress is to authorize the use of force by our military under the president as Commander-in-Chief and they won’t even take it up in committee, much less bring it to the floor for a vote. I fail to understand why. If the president’s proposal is lacking in some way — and several argue that it is — then fix it! Pass your own legislation to authorize military force against ISIS and other terrorists. Many (all?) of the fifteen or so (I lose track) Republicans running for president are critical of our current policies. Four of them are Senators. Bring up some legislation to get things moving. To be fair, there is resistance on both sides of the aisle. Some Democrats complain that the proposal is too expansive and can get us involved in another Middle East war. Some Republicans complain that the proposal is too restrictive and may preclude other courses of action should new developments occur. Okay — but I don’t see how doing nothing at all is productive. What it does do is allow the president to continue his current course of action — a good thing if one supports his policy. Not so good if you don’t. But the bottom line is the same either way — the Congress is abdicating its most important responsibility and has no immediate plan to do anything about it.
All I see is poor leadership. All the way around. Unfortunately, it is business as usual.