The Fight Over How to Avoid a Government Shutdown Is Just Getting Started

Lawmakers left for summer recess without having passed a single appropriations bill, setting the stage for a contentious budget battle when they return in September.

Members of Congress on Friday prepared to leave Washington for their summer recess without having completed a single one of the dozen appropriations bills required to fund government operations in 2017. That sets the stage for a contentious budget battle when lawmakers return to work in September following the Labor Day holiday. The current fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

How that battle will affect agencies is anybody’s guess at this point.

Ed Lorenzen, senior advisor at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said “I’d be extremely surprised to see Congress finish the appropriations process before the election.” He thinks lawmakers may send one or two appropriations bills to the president’s desk this fall, but then will pass a stopgap spending bill to fund the government through December.

“We might get one or two bills that pass, but there will have to be a continuing resolution,” he said. Lorenzen also expects lawmakers to use various budget gimmicks—such as channeling funds through the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations account or other “emergency” accounts—to blow through the spending caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. That’s something both Republicans and Democrats are amenable to if it advances their own priorities. For Republicans, that’s to increase defense spending, especially given troop increases in Afghanistan and Iraq; for Democrats, it’s to boost spending on domestic programs such as efforts to combat the Zika virus.

Because members of both parties want to increase spendingalbeit on different things—lawmakers would be reluctant to pass a long-term CR that would carry over into 2017 because that would lock in current spending levels, Lorenzen said.  

Longtime budget watcher Stan Collender has a different take. There’s “no way” Congress will pass any appropriations bills, he said. “A CR covering all 12 appropriations is virtually inevitable.” Collender, executive vice president at the strategic communications firm Qorvis MSLGROUP, believes congressional Republicans will want to lock in spending levels for as long as possible, given the possibility that the November elections could put Hillary Clinton in the White House and give Democrats a majority in the Senate.

“For that same reason, a full-year CR is not out of the question,” Collender said.

Also not out of the question is another government shutdown this fall. “I wouldn’t say ‘never,’ but I think everyone wants to avoid it,” Lorenzen said. The wild card in any calculation is what the conservative Freedom Caucus will do, said Collender. The group has been the driving force behind high-stakes budget brinksmanship in recent years, and forced the government to shut down for 16 days in 2013 over members’ opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

“The only question is whether the Freedom Caucus will be its usual disruptive self or will see the value of not shutting—or even threatening—a shutdown,” Collender said.