Congressional fiscal IRresponsibility

Presidential candidate Donald Trump made construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico one of the key issues in his 2016 campaign. The wall has become the focal point of a much larger plan for securing the nation’s southern border and controlling the flow of illegal immigrants.

Congressional Democrats, more concerned about politics than national security, have so far prevented President Trump from getting the funding needed to build the wall and generally frustrated efforts to curb illegal entries into the country.

Certainly not known for his patience, President Trump is now threatening to “shut down” the federal government if funding for the wall is not included in the federal budget, the deadline for approval of which is October 1st.

The problem is that it has been decades since congress actually approved a federal budget. Failing in its foremost constitutional duty, congress has instead kept spending flowing through a process known as “continuing resolutions” because it is incapable of arriving at consensus on an actual budget.

Like most matters associated with government how things are supposed to work bears little resemblance to how they actually work. The federal budget process is no exception to that rule.

In theory, shortly after first of the calendar year the president submits a proposed federal budget to congress. Congress then develops top line budget numbers setting a benchmark for spending.

Then appropriations committees in the two chambers develop spend numbers for specific expenditures. Those appropriations are expected to go to a conference committee where the differences between the two chambers are worked out. Congress then must approve the budget which goes to the president for signature.

This process must be completed by October 1st, the start of the federal fiscal year. Depending upon how you define a “passed” budget, it has been since at least 1997 since the regular order of the process played out.

Since that time congress has authorized spending through a never-ending series of “continuing resolutions,” a process hap-hazard at best, irresponsible in practice, and unconstitutional at worst.

The prospects for a return to the regular budget process are non-existent for this year, or – given the Democrats’ “resistance” strategy — for the balance of President Trump’s administration.

And so during these waning days of summer with yet another October 1st deadline looming the budget games are well underway. It is clear congress will now send another continuing resolution, rather than an actual budget, to the president. The last such omnibus bill was an orgy of spending which the president reluctantly signed – while warning he would not sign another such monstrosity.

Democrats have dug in their heels on the border wall and on illegal immigration generally. With the aid of a compliant mainstream news media they have artfully demagogued the issue for political advantage with an eye toward regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the upcoming November elections.

That of course is a very real possibility and the president knows it. Historically the party of a newly elected president loses seats in the next mid-term election. While the math favors Republican retention of their U.S. Senate majority, control of the lower chamber remains very much in doubt.

So President Trump has little to lose by playing the government shut down card. He knows that a “shut down” is not actually a shut down. Essential government services continue while actions more designed to affect public opinion, like closing national parks, are what actually occurs.

By refusing to sign any continuing resolution that does not include border wall funding the president would be fulfilling a key campaign promise, place a spotlight on Democrat intransigence over the immigration issue, energize the Republican base for the upcoming elections, and highlight the absurdity of the broken federal budget process.

Government by shut down is certainly not the preferred way to proceed and is ultimately an admission of failure by all involved in the process.

Congress bears the primary responsibility for this failure. After all, they are the ones who for decades have not actually passed a federal budget and placed it on a president’s desk for signature.

That an unorthodox president might utilize congressional dysfunction to accomplish one of his key policy objectives is entirely predictable. How it will all play out legislatively or politically is impossible to tell, but it is beginning to look like we might find out.

Lowman S. Henry is CEO of the Lincoln Institute. Email him at lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.

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