Kicking the can down the road is no way to run a country

Rick Morain is the former publisher and owner of the Jefferson Herald, for which he writes a regular column.

Congress kicked the can down the road again. But that was better than the alternative.

Last Saturday, September 30, the absolute deadline before failure to act would have “shut the government down,” the U.S. House and then the Senate finally approved a continuing resolution (CR) to keep federal spending going for another 47 days at current rates. September 30 is the last day of the federal fiscal year.

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy had to do lots and lots of backroom dealing to keep the government open—and on October 3, those deals cost him the speaker’s gavel. For many days, he had tried to persuade enough members of his own party to bring home a CR without Democratic help.

He failed. He finally had to rely on Democrats, who voted “aye” almost unanimously: the Democratic House vote on Saturday’s CR was 209 to 1. More Democrats than Republicans supported the resolution: the Republican House vote was 126 ayes, 90 nays. The resolution carried, 335 to 91.

The House immediately transmitted the bill to the Senate, where bipartisan support reigned. The Senate approved it 88 to 9, with 46-vote unanimity from the Democratic caucus and 39 “aye” votes from the Republican side. All three Senate independents voted aye as well. The only negative votes came from nine Republican senators.

All four Iowa members of the House—Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01), Ashley Hinson (IA-02), Zach Nunn (IA-03), and Randy Feenstra (IA-04)—voted aye, as did Iowa’s Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. All are Republicans.

Nothing meaningful happens easily in Washington when Congress is nearly evenly divided, as it is today. Personal grievances and payback against McCarthy were reportedly behind some of the GOP opposition, and former President Donald Trump’s calls for a government shutdown no doubt played a part as well.

But most House Republicans who opposed the resolution said they had had it with “budgeting” by repeated CRs. Their price to keep the government open was to operate through “regular order,” which means voting on the twelve federal budget appropriations sections one by one, rather than throwing them all Into a single omnibus bill at the last minute.

The GOP House opponents proved the primacy of their philosophical, rather than economic, position on September 29, when Speaker McCarthy brought up a different CR—-let’s call it the Friday CR—-designed to appeal to Republicans’ chronic insistence on spending reductions.

The Friday CR called for 30 percent cuts to the budgets of all federal agencies except defense, homeland security, and veterans’ affairs. It also sought to codify a number of Trump-administration border policies. But even those provisions, so dear to nearly all House Republicans, failed to sway the hardliners. The Friday CR failed, 198 to 232, with 21 Republicans joining all the Democrats to defeat it. (Iowa’s House delegation voted for the bill.)

Democrats in the Senate would never have approved a 30 percent cut to most of the government agencies, of course, so McCarthy’s abortive Friday CR never had a chance of becoming law, and everyone knew it. But it was an opportunity for House Republicans to put down a marker, which could have been negotiated in conference committee with a Senate bill. Twenty-one of McCarthy’s GOP colleagues refused.

McCarthy’s hard-line Republican opponents make a correct point about budgeting by regular order. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, because it gives members of Congress the opportunity to do their job. They’re responsible for determining how much money the federal budget will spend on each department of the government, and of course those amounts should be allocated separately.

That’s also the way the pro-McCarthy House members and most others in Congress would prefer to work.

The rub comes in negotiating a level for each department that can achieve a successful compromise. When Democrats control one chamber and Republicans control the other, those negotiations are tough. It’s all too easy to put them off till it’s too late, and then, like this year and most recent years, a CR is the only alternative to a government shutdown.

So in all probability we’ll go through this tight squeeze again in mid-November, especially now that a new speaker will be in charge of the fractious House GOP caucus.

If you’d like the failed system to change, ask your federal representative and senators why they allow budget procrastination year after year. Each federal department spends millions, or billions, of dollars annually. Each one deserves the focused attention of Congress, both to determine what it needs to do and what it should reduce or eliminate.

That can’t be done by kicking the can down the road again. No can deserves such treatment, especially when it contains the entire federal budget.

About the Author(s)

Rick Morain