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Capitol Correspondence - 09.22.20

Political Experts’ Outlook Still Positive on Avoiding Federal Shutdown, but Less So on Lame Duck Legislating

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Political appetite to avoid a federal shutdown during an election year remains strong, with the House introducing a short-term funding bill on Monday. ANCOR staff notes that the bill appears to include a short-term extension of the Money Follows the Person program. The summary of a Politico Pro panel discussion copied below provides additional context for the political climate surrounding this legislation. We remind our readers that while Medicaid is not affected by federal shutdowns, federal programs such as food and housing aid on which people with disabilities rely – particularly during this pandemic – would be vulnerable if Congress cannot reach an agreement on a short-term budget extension.

“POLITICO budget and appropriations reporter Caitlin Emma, along with defense reporter Connor O’Brien and senior education reporter Michael Stratford, held a briefing for Pro subscribers on Thursday to discuss what’s next for government funding legislation and whether Congress can pull together another pandemic aid package.

A government shutdown would be really bad, but it’s unlikely

If federal funding lapses on Sept. 30 — just weeks before the November election — it would be totally “paralyzing” for agencies, which would be forced to operate with a skeleton staff and halt certain activities, Michael said. A failure of Congress to pass a short-term spending fix by the end of the month would be ‘an incredible unforced error,’ Connor noted, considering that lawmakers already have fiscal 2021 budget caps in place that should guide the writing and passage of a dozen appropriations bills.

But as Caitlin explained, congressional leaders and the White House seem confident that a shutdown won’t happen, although they’re still haggling over an end date for a continuing resolution and which funding and policy exceptions to include in the bill. Republicans want to drag out government funding until Dec. 18, while Democrats are pushing for a more advantageous end date on Feb. 26, when they hope to control both chambers of Congress.

House leaders have said they want to vote next week on the continuing resolution. The bill would extend current government funding levels past Sept. 30 and buy more time for negotiations on a slate of fiscal 2021 spending bills.]

Nobody really likes a continuing resolution

While a stopgap averts the possibility of a catastrophic funding lapse, such short-term spending measures are actually loathed by the heads of federal agencies. They’re also a bad look for congressional appropriators, who are tasked with writing the bills that increase department budgets.

‘It impacts planning,’ Michael said of a CR. Stopgaps also present little hope of advancing policy issues that many members of Congress would like to see enacted through appropriations bills, he said. […]

A whole lot hinges on the November election

Once Congress passes a CR, much of the fiscal 2021 appropriations process hinges on who wins the presidential election and which parties control the House and Senate, Caitlin said.

If Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the White House and Democrats win control of both chambers, annual spending bills could become a vehicle through which Democrats try to reverse many of the Trump administration’s policies.

Coronavirus talks seem cursed

Negotiations over the next pandemic relief package aren’t going well, to say the least. Congressional leaders and the White House can’t seem to agree on an overall price tag, let alone reach a deal that could extend unemployment insurance, replenish small business loans or provide billions of dollars in aid for schools, colleges and universities, which are struggling to reopen with in-person teaching or stand up remote learning programs. Aid for state and local governments remains a huge sticking point.

As Michael explained, Republicans have been pushing to provide coronavirus aid to schools that serves as an incentive to reopen in-person, rather than remain virtual. Democrats, meanwhile, have complained that the GOP is trying to use money as leverage to pressure schools into reopening. But both parties agree that schools are going to need more cash.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem likely that the Pentagon will get a major boost in the next pandemic relief bill, if one ever materializes, Connor said.

Don’t hold your breath for legislating in a lame duck

If Congress passes a CR that lasts until December, lawmakers will have teed up yet another holiday season spending standoff. But it’s unclear if there will be an appetite for bipartisan compromise on a massive fiscal 2021 funding deal in a lame-duck session of Congress, Caitlin said.

While the House has finished most of his fiscal 2021 spending bills, the Senate hasn’t even started its appropriations process yet. Compromise on a dozen funding measures would be a massive lift after the November election, which could result in yet another stopgap to keep the government open until sometime next year.

The lame-duck session after the November election could also be a tenuous time for the National Defense Authorization Act, or annual defense policy legislation, in addition to any kind of update to federal higher education law, Connor and Michael said.”