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The shutdown horror show was bad, but beware the reruns

Recent impasse may have only been the tip of the iceberg

President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi argue over border security in the Oval Office on Dec. 11. They are back it, engaging in a war of words after he abruptly ended a meeting Wednesday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)
President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi argue over border security in the Oval Office on Dec. 11. They are back it, engaging in a war of words after he abruptly ended a meeting Wednesday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — The longest government shutdown in our country’s history has ended, at least temporarily. Over the next three weeks, lawmakers must reach principled agreement to fund the entire federal government and keep it open.

Unfortunately, this sad episode is a warning sign of equally difficult circumstances ahead in the new Congress.

President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear to have irreconcilable differences. As a result of their intransigence, dedicated civil servants were furloughed or required to work without pay for more than a month. In addition, the strongest democratic country in the world has suffered a black eye to its global credibility.

A different time

As the staff director of the Senate Budget Committee during the 1995-96 government shutdown — the longest, prior to this one — I remember only too well how it ended: Republicans gave in to President Bill Clinton and abandoned their goal of enacting a plan to balance the federal budget over a seven-year period. The irony that the current shutdown relates to spending more money, with a nearly trillion-dollar deficit expected this year, is not lost on some of us.

Even though Republicans conceded to the president in 1996, they were able to successfully negotiate in the following months the most fundamental reforms to our welfare system in decades. Equally important, Republicans and Democrats came together the following year — without shutting down the government — to enact the Bipartisan Balanced Budget Act of 1997 that led to federal budget surpluses for four straight years until the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The latest shutdown has been a lesson in how each side needs something to claim victory. But that has always been the backbone of a successful negotiation, and in this instance, both congressional leaders have spent plenty of time in their careers around a negotiating table to know that. In other words, they know better.

After the shutdown

So what will follow a shutdown that has marked such a contentious period between Republicans and Democrats?

Will a divided 116th Congress and a determined president return to addressing the issues of most concern to the American public: prescription drug prices; economic, retirement, and job security; fixing the country’s infrastructure; the cost of higher education; and just maybe, the increasing imbalance between revenue and spending? One can only hope for a return to a functioning democratic, deliberative process addressing these and other pressing issues.

But the unfortunate truth is that the end of the longest shutdown in our history may only be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what lies ahead.

Congress must again turn to its most fundamental responsibility of adopting a budget blueprint to guide its spending and revenue decisions for next year. The president has the first shot at this blueprint and is required to submit his budget to Congress for fiscal 2020 by Feb. 4. If that submission is delayed, it would once again jeopardize Congress’ ability to complete its annual appropriation bills by the end of September.

The reinstatement of the currently suspended statutory debt limit after March 1 could trigger a real “fiscal cliff” — probably even more serious than the recent government shutdown. Past administrations have used authorized special procedures to stretch out the country’s borrowing authority beyond the statutory suspension date.

But the president, possibly thwarted by not achieving his border wall in this shutdown, could look again for leverage with Congress by not implementing these extraordinary measures and holding hostage the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. That would set off a disastrous, unprecedented government default on March 2.

Finally, the statutory caps for fiscal 2020 defense and nondefense appropriations fall back from their current 2019 levels by more than $125 billion. On Oct. 1, defense spending would decline $71 billion and nondefense by $54 billion. A similar cliffhanger in 2018 resulted in the caps being adjusted upward. How will the 116th Congress choose to modify these caps for their upcoming appropriations?

This shutdown has ended, for now. But do not assume we won’t see reruns of this horror show unless, as James Madison understood at our founding, politicians compromise because they have to, not because they want to.

G. William Hoagland is a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.