This week lasted a bit longer than most congressional weeks with both the House and the Senate leaders meeting at the White House twice on Saturday.
The meeting, of course, was an effort to resolve the debt increase impasse that is occurring between Congress and the White House. The “global debt deal” fell apart late last week so they have been working on a short-term debt increase to avoid default. President Barack Obama has said that he wants a debt deal that extends the funds through 2012. This is code talk for an extension to provide funds until after his election in November 2012. The Treasury secretary echoed these wishes on the Sunday talk shows.
Which does the president care more about, the next generation or the next election? For a bit of history, as far back as 1940 Congress had to pass 37 short-term debt extensions -- these provide funding for less than six months. Fourteen of these were as a result of the Congress working on "global debt-budget deals.” For example, in the 1980s Congress had to pass four short-term extensions of our debt while tweaking the Gramm/Rudman/Hollings debt-reduction plan.
Also, during the debt negotiations of 1995, the House of Representatives was in a tug-of-war with President Bill Clinton over the appropriations bills. In 1995, under the leadership of Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the “Contract with America” pledged to cut spending and lower the rate of government spending. This led to a fall 1995 showdown between the GOP Congress and President Clinton on the appropriations process and the debt-limit increase. President Clinton vetoed appropriations bills because they cut too deeply or the rate of increase in spending was too low.
The main political point made by President Clinton was centered on cuts in Medicare Part B premium and environmental programs. At the same time, the national debt limit needed to be increased. Congress held the debt-limit legislation hostage, threatening not to pass it until the president started signing the appropriations bill. Ultimately Congress passed a debt-limit extension but added provisions for lower spending and a seven-year balanced budget plan. President Clinton vetoed the debt increase bill which was to extend borrowing authority through Dec. 12, 1995.
Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin moved money from other funds to avert a borrowing crisis.
Ultimately, the Congress was able to come to an agreement on the debt and government spending bills in late January 1996 lasting into March 1996. Several government shut-downs occurred, including furloughing employees within federal government agencies and departments. The final deal was agreed to in March to keep unfunded departments going and to raise the debt ceiling. The agreement allowed for a freeze of spending levels and a path to a seven-year balanced budget plan.
Returning to the present, House members hope to have a current short-term debt bill on the House floor by Wednesday of this week. They are also planning to debate HR 2587, a bill to prohibit the National Labor Relations Board from ordering any business to close or relocate. This bill is born out of the lawsuit filed by the NRLR against Boeing for wanting to open a new aircraft-building plant in South Carolina. Boeing is not closing any existing plants, but rather opening a new one in a right-to-work state. The House may also consider the Interior appropriations bill. This will be the seventh appropriations bill passed by the House, which is more than halfway through the 12-bill process of fully funding the federal government and all its agencies.
The Senate isn’t taking up the House-passed appropriations bills other than the one they passed last week. Therefore, expect another showdown with the president at the end of September, and this one will be a repeat of last December when the Bush tax cuts were extended. Since the Senate isn’t passing the appropriations bills with any consistency, an omnibus appropriations bill will need to be enacted, which is sometimes called a CR (continuing resolution). This CR will be needed to avert a government shut-down. This will be an additional showdown to the debt debate occurring in Congress now.
The Senate failed to enact the 21st extension of the Federal Aviation Administration last Friday which left the FAA without any funding. This agency hasn’t been fully funded on an annual basis for almost four years. Since Congress failed to pass the extension, which was to fund the agency through Sept. 16, almost 4,000 nonessential employees were furloughed as a result of the impasse. Expect the Senate to work on some temporary extension of this agency during the upcoming week.
The Senate will also presumably be working on the debt extension bill, once the House considers the bill early this week or midweek.
Stay tuned to see who cares more about the next generation than the next election.
Elizabeth B. Letchworth is a retired, elected United States Senate secretary for the majority and minority. Currently she is a senior legislative adviser for Covington & Burling, LLC and is the founder of GradeGov.com.