Congress returned from its summer recess yesterday. I hope our representatives had a relaxing and restorative vacation. Because now that they're back, they face the legislative equivalent of a dumpster fire.
First up is renewing the federal budget. Current appropriations run out on Sept. 30. Should Congress fail to pass new spending directions, it wouldn't be the first time, and it wouldn't be the end of the world. A lot of the federal government's most crucial functions run on autopilot. But many parts of the government would still shut down. That means lots of closed agencies and furloughs for government workers. Such a shutdown would be a huge inconvenience for Americans and harmful to the economy — not to mention a big embarrassment for the GOP, which has full control of the government and should be able to pass a budget.
A shutdown may well be averted. Negotiations are pretty far along on a stopgap measure that would fund the government at existing levels through December. But there is little room to maneuver. Passing a budget with no serious spending cuts will not sit well with a lot of conservative politicians. At the same time, doing anything to appease the GOP's right flank — or to indulge President Trump on things like a border wall — will send the Democrats packing.
Congress also needs to deal with the debt ceiling. That's the statutory limit on how much total debt the federal government can have. Since America spends most of its time deficit spending, we bump up against the debt limit every so often, forcing Congress to raise it. For a long time, this was a routine and nonpartisan affair. But in recent years, raising the debt ceiling has turned into regular bouts of hostage-taking, with hardcore right-wingers demanding cuts and other concessions in return for a debt ceiling hike.
If we were to breach the debt ceiling, the Treasury would be forbidden by law from borrowing another cent. So all federal spending would have to fall in line with day-to-day tax revenue flows. That alone would force an immediate and massive cut in spending, which would wreak havoc on the economy. Furthermore, a ban on borrowing would prevent the federal government from meeting interest payments on the debt load it already has. U.S. debt is the foundation of international financial markets — the safest of safe investments. And no one really has any idea what would happen if America ever defaulted on its obligations. So the possibilities run from bad (national recession) to catastrophic (potential chaos and collapse in global financial markets).
The deadline for raising the debt ceiling falls on Sept. 29 — literally one day before Congress has to pass a budget to avoid a shutdown. Wait any longer, and the U.S. defaults on its obligations.
If you think conservative ideologues don't like passing budgets without accompanying cuts, they really hate passing "clean" debt ceiling increases without them. "I think you'd see Congress reject [a clean debt ceiling increase]," David McIntosh, the president of the conservative Club for Growth, told Politico. The only other option would be for the Republican leadership to make common cause with the Democrats, which would infuriate their own right flank.
It's essentially the same problem the killed TrumpCare: Moderate or even traditionally conservative GOP congresspeople aren't numerous enough to pass bills on their own. They have to either partner with Democrats or with the truly right-wing Republicans. In either instance, they completely alienate the side they don't partner with, putting them in a situation where they can only pass bills with zero room for error.
There's one final big X-factor here: Hurricane Harvey, which slammed into the Texas and Louisiana coasts last week as a category 4 storm.
Harvey caused massive damage across Texas in particular, and horrendous flooding in Houston, one of the country's biggest cities. Congress is already prepping a $7.9 billion federal aid package, which is where things get really tricky.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pointed out that passing the aid package will be rather pointless unless the debt ceiling gets hiked as well. So he suggested — apparently with Trump's blessing — putting the aid for Harvey relief and the debt ceiling hike together as one package deal. That didn't go over well with Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who leads a group of 170 GOP congressmembers called the Republican Study Committee: "Our obligation is to assist those impacted by this great flood, but it's past time the swamp waters in D.C. begin receding as well," he said. "As we have stated for months, the debt ceiling should be paired with significant fiscal and structural reforms." Other politicians, particularly those with ties to the region, don't want aid for Harvey victims to be made contingent on other issues.
Right now, expectations seem to be that the House will pass Harvey aid as a standalone measure, then the Senate will attach it to a debt ceiling increase — and hopefully the House will go along. So Harvey might just shame Congress into just gritting its teeth and passing what needs to be passed. Conversely, it could inflame tensions even further.
And all of this is before you get into the other programs Congress needs to deal with: They need to re-up funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, for national flood insurance, and for the Federal Aviation Administration. Oh, and if they still want to take a crack at repealing ObamaCare, they also have to do that by Sept. 30: After that date, the reconciliation rules to pass the repeal with 50 votes in the Senate expires.
Don't even get me started on DACA, which President Trump will kill in six months unless Congress acts.
The only way for Congress to get through it all without something going catastrophically wrong is for Republican lawmakers to swallow their pride and concede at least temporary defeat on everything from debt reduction to spending cuts to President Trump's campaign promises. And presiding over all this is Trump himself, a man about as well-suited to leading high-stakes negotiations as I am to competing in Olympic water polo.
Enjoy September, everyone.