WASHINGTON — Congress made a whole lot of noise but not a lot of progress last week on Department of Homeland Security funding. Whether you prefer the metaphorical (“punting,” “kicking the can down the road”) or the technical (“passing a one-week continuing resolution”), we’re back in crisis mode this week after lawmakers extended funding for the department just through this Friday.
It’s a pattern that’s becoming old hat for lawmakers. Since Republicans took the House in 2011 and divided government returned to Washington, partisanship has colored every debate on Capitol Hill and what were once business-as-usual fiscal votes, have turned into panicked, last-minute legislating.
From raising the debt ceiling — the statutory limit on federal debt — to simply funding the government, nothing is easy anymore, but everything follows Congress’ Seven Steps of Governing by Crisis:
Step 1: Schedule the crisis
These crises, from potential government shutdowns to debt-default deadlines, don’t just sneak up on Congress. Lawmakers know that they have to fund the government, for example, and when, exactly, they need to do it. For these routine steps to morph into a crisis, they have to actively avoid doing what they need to do to solve their problems — or even take steps to make them worse.
Recently, Republicans have tried to use budget fights to force policy concessions. Democrats, from President Obama on down, have refused to play ball. Together, that leads to stalemates like the current one over Homeland Security funding. Or take the government shutdown of 2013, when the GOP refused to fund the government over objections to the Affordable Care Act.
When it comes to Homeland Security, lawmakers knew in December that they needed to fund the department, but Republicans chose to fund it only on a short-term basis, just through the end of February, so they could use the budget as leverage against President Obama’s immigration executive actions. In passing the budget and setting that deadline, they knew there would be a budget fight last week (and now this week, too). They had scheduled the crisis.
Step 2: Do nothing at all
The easiest step in the process. Once the crisis is on the calendar, nothing of substance gets done until the deadline is a matter of weeks or days away. Lawmakers give speeches, send letters, and write op-eds, but generally Parkinson’s Law reigns. When Congress passed its Homeland Security bill in December, for example, it immediately left town on for a three-week recess.
Step 3: Pretend to “solve” the crisis
In the mid-stages of the crisis, both sides will try to claim moral high ground by pushing proposals to “solve” the problem. These plans are often partisan and base-pleasing, and dead-on-arrival as actual solutions.
Nowhere is this more evident than before the October 2013 government shutdown. Republicans had hoped to attach provisions delaying the ACA to must-pass bills funding the government. The New York Times has a great graphic detailing the back-and-forth game the GOP House and the Democratic Senate played next. The House would send the Senate funding bills with anti-ACA provisions, and the Senate would send “clean” versions, or bills without the provisions, right back. None of these bills would pass, and both sides knew that, but this exercise played out for days nonetheless.
This is also the point where the minority party, devoid of any real power, will begin playing procedural games. Maybe they’ll do as a group of House Democrats did Wednesday, lining up on the House floor to raise a dozen parliamentary requests, doomed for denial, to bring their own bill up for consideration. This is entertaining for congressional nerds, but otherwise completely useless.
Step 4: Ramp up the rhetoric. Deliver dire warnings.
In the final days before the deadline, officials will begin warning about the dire impacts of the crisis on the U.S.: Failing to raise the debt limit will lead to a default, a stock market panic and higher interest rates! Shuttering the government will mean furloughed workers and the loss of federal grants, especially for your very state!
Well-credentialed wonks and economists will show up in news stories and on television. High-ranking administration officials will take their case directly to reporters, a rarity under normal circumstances. The worse the potential outcome, the more likely it is they will broadcast it far and wide, all in the hopes of putting pressure on their opponent (or to use as political ammunition should the crisis come to pass).
That’s exactly what happened early last week with DHS funding, as cable news’ crisis countdown clocks began winding down.
Step 5: The “deal-in-principle” phase. Begin backroom dealings, prepare for handwringing.
Eventually, with the deadline bearing down on them, leadership in both parties will see the light and work together to find a real solution.
Details of these plans go public, and then the backroom dealing begins. House Republicans huddle in their basement conference room while reporters line the hall outside, waiting to mob members and find schisms within the conference. Senators have lunch with their party caucuses, and then hold dueling press conferences off the Senate floor. Outside interest groups will make snap judgments on the plan and warn lawmakers how they will “score” the deal.
Deals succeed and fail right here. Sometimes, compromises break down when there isn’t enough support to pass them, especially in the House GOP conference, which still generally abides by the principle that the House shouldn’t vote on bills unless a majority of the caucus supports it (though Speaker John Boehner has a history of breaking this rule to get a deal done). The conference has become so unpredictable that even internal plans fall apart — on Friday, Republicans tried to pass a three-week funding bill, but it failed on the floor when conservatives defected.
This leads to an optional, “choose-your-own-adventure” Step 6:
Step 6a: Reschedule the crisis
Don’t have the support to pass your compromise bill through both chambers? Pass a short-term bill (a suspension of the debt limit, or, say, a bill funding Homeland Security for just a week) to give you more time to fight. No one will be happy about this, and there will be much gnashing of teeth about the unproductivity of Congress, but the crisis cycle begins anew.
This is a common tactic, and members find unique ways to do it. In January 2013, Republicans said they would ignore the debt limit as long as the House and Senate both passed budget resolutions for the next year. If they didn’t, lawmakers wouldn’t get paid. Congress collectively threw up its hands and passed the bill, suspending the federal limit on debt … but only until the following May.
Step 6b: Miss the deadline. Let the crisis come.
The most rare and radical outcome. The ACA’s troubled roll-out would eventually overshadow the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013, but Congress’ failure to pass a budget, and the first federal government shutdown in 13 years, was a nadir for lawmaking, even under crisis-era standards.
This outcome is rare. The U.S. has never hit its debt limit; Congress will probably find a way to fund DHS this week. More often than not, Congress is able to …
Step 7: … Compromise (or, capitulate, depending on what side you’re on)
Lawmakers hold their noses and vote for an unlikeable bill to avoid the crisis. The debt limit goes up, with or without conditions attached. The government is funded, at levels no one really likes. This often happens at the last minute, and sometimes even after Congress’ deadline — lawmakers passed a deal avoiding the “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1, 2013, even though the big tax increases and deep spending cuts it averted technically kicked in at midnight the night before.
Compromise is never popular, and the hardliners are usually the least happy about it. It seems likely any eventual DHS deal will, for all practical purposes, preserve Obama’s executive actions on immigration, so conservatives will walk away empty handed. In December, with a deadline looming, liberals rallied against what they considered weakened financial regulations included in a spending bill. They lost. The legislation passed and Obama signed it into law.
But even a done deal can start the cycle all over again. In 2011, lawmakers raised the debt limit but established deep across-the-board spending cuts, “sequestration,” set it take affect in 2013, if lawmakers couldn’t reach a deficit reduction deal first. They couldn’t, and the budget cuts eventually kicked in (those spending cuts were themselves delayed for two months by the aforementioned fiscal cliff deal).
In fact, every time Congress raises the debt limit, they’re starting the crisis countdown all over again — as long as the government runs a deficit, it will inevitably borrow so much money that Congress will need to raise the limit later.
Which is say: This week’s DHS spat isn’t the last one of these. You’ll need to keep an eye on Congress this summer. At some point (we don’t know when just yet), we’ll hit the debt limit. That will be the new deadline day, and crisis will be upon us once again.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry