Status: 25/09/2023, 17:26 p.m.
Sunrise in front of the Capitol on Wednesday. Lawmakers have less than a week to avert a shutdown of the federal government. © Matt McClain/The Washington Post
The U.S. is once again lurching towards a shutdown. Observers see the budget dispute as "purely symbolic" - even the right is divided.
Washington, D.C. - Time is running out for Congress to prevent a government shutdown - and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Republican) continues to try to defuse the demands of the ultra-conservatives in the House of Representatives. They are calling for aggressive spending cuts.
When lawmakers return on Tuesday (26 September), both the House of Representatives and the Senate will try different tactics to fund the government by the deadline – each trying to get their preferred legislation through the other chamber in a risky game. The current spending laws expire on September 30, so the government will go into shutdown at 1.0 a.m. on October 01 if nothing happens.
USA before the shutdown? Majority of Republicans against stagnation - right-wing extremists oppose it
In the House of Representatives, the Republican majority failed to reach a consensus on a short-term financing bill, the so-called Continuing Resolution, several times last week. Most MPs want to avert a stalemate, but a small group of far-right MPs opposing a short-term extension have blocked this option.
Therefore, Republicans will try to pass some separate bills that would fund the U.S. government for the entire fiscal year. The Senate will begin work on its own short-term budget bill on Tuesday to send it to the House of Representatives by the weekend. There, it would likely have enough votes to pass — but only with the support of the Democrats, which is a red line for many in the GOP.
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But while far-right rebels in McCarthy's caucus see rising national debt as such a threat that it's worth forcing the government into shutdown and pushing through spending cuts, the uncomfortable fiscal reality is that most of what is pushing federal borrowing to record levels isn't even up for discussion this week.
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Conservatives want to reduce federal discretionary spending to 2022 levels, which would mean cutting more than $100 billion from agency budgets each year.
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That's a lot of money, but to achieve the goal, a small portion of the federal budget would have to be severely cut — especially programs that provide services such as education, medical research, and help for families in poverty. However, the government's largest annual spending and the main drivers of U.S. debt are the Medicare and Social Security pension programs. The United States spends more than six trillion dollars every year. McCarthy's caucus is at loggerheads over how to cut discretionary domestic spending, which accounts for less than one-sixth of that sum.
The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office expects the annual federal deficit to rise to nearly three trillion dollars by the next decade, up from about two trillion dollars this year. If conservatives among House Republicans get everything they are aiming for now, that number could drop to about $2.8 trillion a year.
U.S. heading for shutdown: "Purely symbolic struggle"
"People in my constituency are fed up with how this city works," said Rep. Elijah Crane, who joined other conservatives last week to prevent McCarthy's attempts to postpone spending bills. "They understand that we don't want to spend money we don't have, and they expect me to do everything I can to prevent that and change the way we work. That's not always the most pleasant thing to do."
But the discrepancy between the political rhetoric about the gridlock and the reality of the budget bill underscores how little lawmakers are doing to curb the long-term imbalance in federal spending. Without an agreement, the shutdown will come, which will affect economic growth and lead to the suspension of numerous important public services.
"It's a purely symbolic battle that ignores 90 percent of the actual budget," said Brian Riedl, who served as an adviser to former Senator Rob Portman and now works as a political analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. "I think lawmakers would be much more credible if they dealt with the rest of the budget at the same time."
Budget dispute affects only a small part of Biden's budget
The dispute revolves around such a small portion of the budget because even the Republicans have agreed not to touch the largest sources of federal spending, including Social Security and Medicare pension programs, but also the military, border patrol and veterans' benefits, which the Democrats also do not want to cut. Republicans have also ruled out higher taxes as part of a deficit reduction agreement. Instead, the GOP has called for cuts to domestic programs, which are funded annually by Congress and are known as "discretionary" spending.
As part of an agreement to prevent the debt ceiling from being exceeded in June, President Joe Biden and McCarthy agreed to leave this part of the budget essentially unchanged, which would be tantamount to a cut when inflation is taken into account. However, many Republicans in the House of Representatives believe that this agreement was a cap on spending rather than a floor, and they want to save about $100 billion next year compared to this year.
To make matters worse, Republicans are pushing for these cuts while looking to increase funding for immigration enforcement and veteran benefits. This means that the cuts they are proposing would require dramatic cuts in domestic programs. Such a drastic cut is likely to have a hard time passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives; even if it did, the Democratic-controlled Senate would never pass it, and Biden would veto it.
Right-wing extremists allegedly do not understand budget processes - even resentment among Republicans
Republican supporters in the House of Representatives had previously proposed $60 billion cuts to these domestic programs, which would bring spending on these programs relative to economic output to its lowest level in at least 60 years, according to Bobby Kogan, senior director of federal fiscal policy at the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank. However, this plan is seen as inadequate by the Conservatives, who are pushing for deeper cuts. This weekend, senior Republicans in the House of Representatives discussed a proposal that would see cuts of $175 billion, or about 25 percent.
Some Republicans have secretly complained that many of their far-right counterparts don't understand the process of funding government and only made more demands when the bills were almost ready for a vote in the plenary. "I think more of these people need an introductory course when they're here for the first time," moderate Republican Rep. David Joyce said in early September. "If you want to control the results, you have to work harder on the approval practice."
The Republicans in the House of Representatives are currently arguing about only one of many steps to finance the government. Some kind of compromise with the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House will be necessary to pass an spending bill, whether for a short extension or for the entire fiscal year.
U.S. before the shutdown: Some hard right-wingers are negotiating - others are stubborn
While some hard-right lawmakers have tried to negotiate short-term funding for the government—most notably Freedom Caucus chairmen Scott Perry, Chip Roy and Byron Donalds—many objectors continue to oppose a bridging bill because they are upset that the conference didn't start voting on spending bills for the entire fiscal year earlier. At the same time, however, the far-right rebels have also hindered this process by blocking the debate on two such bills in recent months.
Some of the objectors never endorsed McCarthy as spokesman, but ultimately voted "yes" to secure him the post. These members, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (Florida), continue to threaten to file a motion to force McCarthy out of the post of Speaker, which greatly angers the majority of Congress.
"We've been working on these issues for months. Anyone who claims anything other than that it's a last-minute deal is disingenuous," said a Republican negotiator who wished to remain anonymous to express his dissatisfaction with several colleagues. "Some people just have a personal problem that has nothing to do with securing the country's fiscal sanity or anything else."
"Clearly not a serious attempt to stabilize the debt"
Cutting only the parts of the budget that the House of Representatives proposals focus on would do little to curb the deficit while increasing other costs. The government is expected to spend three trillion dollars more over the next decade on Social Security and health programs alone, more than double the cost cuts envisaged by the GOP plan.
"You could completely eliminate the entire pot that Republicans are talking about, and you wouldn't put the government on a sustainable course," said Ben Ritz, director of the Public Policy Institute's Center for Funding America's future. "It's clearly not a serious attempt to stabilize the debt."
Under former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP sought to curb spending on Social Security and health insurance by presenting plans to significantly reduce the federal deficit. However, these proposals were unpopular with voters and were largely abandoned by McCarthy under pressure from former President Donald Trump, who saw cuts in Social Security and health insurance as political losers. Some conservatives have called for the cuts to the smaller domestic programs as a necessary first step toward ending the "awakening and gun-wielding bureaucracy" on which the right can then build by pushing for more aggressive cuts.
Republican McCarthy warns: No winners in a shutdown
And some budget experts also say that while the GOP proposal would not eliminate the debt, more than $100 billion in cuts over a decade could lead to a $1 trillion spending cut. "That's not much, but it's not nothing either, especially over time," said Marc Goldwein, a budget analyst at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
As a shutdown becomes more likely, House leaders are pointing out to their members that it could cost them politically. "I just think if you don't fund the troops and the border, it's pretty difficult to believe that you're going to win in a shutdown. I've been through this a few times," McCarthy told reporters on Friday.
Moderate GOP politicians have even begun negotiating with centrist Democrats to reach an agreement that could avert a crisis.
"Shutdowns have cost taxpayers billions of dollars"
"Shutting down the government is not appropriate," said Joyce of Ohio, who heads the Republican government group negotiating with the New Democratic coalition. "I mean, people say they're conservative and they want to cut spending. Well, shutdowns cost taxpayers billions of dollars in 2013, 2018, and 2019. It cost the government almost four billion dollars."
This argument has not changed the minds of many radical right-wing MPs. Roy of the House Freedom Caucus scoffed at the idea that reopening government after a shutdown would cost too much to be worth it.
"There are rounding errors in our ridiculous federal government that can be used to deal with the inputs and exits of a shutdown," he said. "Take this out of your fucking IRS extension and leave me alone. I'm not worried about that. What I'm worried about is that we shouldn't get there, because what we should do is pass the permit bill and do our job."
About the authors
Jeff Stein is an economic reporter for the White House at the Washington Post. He was a crime reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard and founded the nonprofit local news agency Ithaca Voice in upstate New York in 2014. He was also a reporter for Vox.
Marianna Sotomayor reports on the House of Representatives for the Washington Post, focusing primarily on the leadership of the Democrats and Republicans. Sotomayor joined The Post from NBC News in 2021.
We are currently testing machine translations. This article has been automatically translated from English into German.
This article was first published in English by "Washingtonpost.com" on September 24, 2023 - in the course of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of IPPEN. MEDIA portals.