The September agenda in Congress was supposed to be full to the brim with difficult legislative deadlines amid mounting political pressure on Republicans to get things done. Congress needed to fund the government past the end of the current fiscal year, address the debt ceiling, reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program (amid historic flooding and mounting debt within the program), and provide emergency disaster spending relief.
That all changed with one handshake in the Oval Office, when President Trump and congressional leaders of both parties agreed to punt all of these issues to December.
The president, House speaker, House minority leader, and both the majority and minority leaders in the Senate agreed on a package that combines all of those issues into one bill. The bill, passed by both chambers and signed by the president less than two days after the deal was struck, provides $15 billion in disaster relief spending. Additionally, it continues government spending as is until Dec. 8; suspends the debt ceiling until that date; and reauthorizes the National Flood Insurance Program.
Leaders in Congress often like to say they’re “clearing the decks,” which is a way of handling important deadlines (such as expiring authorizations or spending) without making meaningful reform. They’re handling those issues quietly without much debate about the potential reforms that could or should be attached to the measures. In this way, they have “cleared the decks” of the difficult issues and have made room for the issues they do want to focus on.
In other words, “clearing the decks” is a positive spin on an otherwise very disappointing measure.
The big bipartisan deal was not a breakthrough. Nothing actually changed. Essentially, the bill is a temporary rubber stamp on the status quo for spending and the debt ceiling. The disaster relief was so popular in Congress that it was attached to ensure the other measures would pass. The deal is not significant progress, but a massive effort to “clear the decks.”
The bill is a fiscal disaster, as it continues massive deficit spending without even the slightest change. Furthermore, the bill should raise red flags for those concerned about the looming debt crisis. It sets a dangerous precedent for suspending the debt ceiling without attaching spending reforms and reveals a startling and newfound willingness among the president and Republicans in Congress to do so.
On the bright side, the bad law will expire on December 8. By that time, Congress and the president will be out of excuses and out of runway. They’ll need to enact an actual appropriations bill that fully funds national defense and cuts unnecessary and wasteful spending. They’ll need to address the debt crisis by attaching meaningful spending reforms to any measure that lifts the debt ceiling.
As bad as the law is, it accomplished the goal of clearing the decks. They are now cleared and Congress can focus on top priorities such as repealing and replacing ObamaCare and cutting taxes.
September was widely expected to be a knockdown, drag-out slog. Instead, Congress finds itself with unexpected time that creates a meaningful opportunity to get back to work on the agenda they ran on.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 9/18/17