September 10, 2013; The Hill


When Congress came back from its vacation this week, it had all of nine official days of legislating left in its calendar before it would have to pass a new FY2014 budget or a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating. Now that the U.S. has delayed a potential missile attack on Syria in order to negotiate with Russia and others around a plan to deal with its stockpiles of chemical weapons, Congress will have to intensely focus on budget issues.

The first utterly confusing, too-cute-by-half salvo has been issued by the House Republican leadership. Early this week, it released a resolution for government spending that would expire less than three months after the start of the fiscal year, on December 15th. It isn’t quite clear how this short-term resolution comports with the requirements of the sequester, but there is vague language that suggests that virtually nothing new can be initiated in terms of projects and programs under this short-term resolution and that the major priority would be to reduce or prevent additional civilian staff furloughs.

Here’s the too-cute part. The House Republicans would also pass and send along for Senate approval an accompanying concurrent resolution that would prevent any funds from being spent to implement the Affordable Care Act, adding a Section 137 to the short-term spending resolution. The arcane theory behind this is that the separate ACA resolution would force the Senate to take an up or down vote on the program. Perhaps it is a campaign ploy by Republicans, intending to force those senators who voted for the ACA to defend their vote in the 2014 electoral cycle. Or maybe it is a means of allowing Senate Republicans to show their conservative mettle by being able to vote against the ACA.

Prior to this ploy, apparently attributable to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner had been considering a continuing resolution that would continue 100 percent of the scheduled sequester cuts on discretionary domestic programs, but cut the sequestration cuts on the Pentagon to only 60 percent. In other words, if the planned sequester were to have simply continued as planned in FY2014, discretionary defense spending would have been $498 billion and non-defense $469 billion. Boehner’s plan would leave non-defense at $469 billion but lift the Pentagon budget to $518 billion. If the House were to pass the two-resolution plan, it would appear to sideline Boehner’s “clean” budget plan.

Add it all up. The House and Senate could pass one resolution, a 10-week government funding plan, avoiding a government shutdown, but maintaining the sequester in place, and choose to fund or defund the Affordable Care Act in addition. For nonprofits, this plan is just about nuts. The new fiscal year would start, but with no money for any kind of long-term initiatives that would obligate the government and no release from the tightening belt of the sequester. Then, in December, the game would start again.

Apparently, it was even too convoluted or too cute for Majority Leader Cantor’s followers. After examining the details, House Republicans seemed to shoot down Cantor’s test balloon, rejecting the notion of a funding resolution that separates out a vote on the Affordable Care Act. The right wing of the Republican Party wants one budget bill for FY2014 that clearly defunds healthcare reform. Poor Speaker Boehner is essentially being challenged by his party’s Tea Party coterie under the suspicion that he might be a closet ACA supporter—highly unlikely given his entire political history—or possibly be willing to turn a blind eye to continued ACA funding in order to avoid the mutual self-destruct possibility of a government shutdown. The Republican right wing seems even more to the right than Cantor, pledging never to vote for a budget deal that doesn’t include the defunding of the dreaded “Obamacare.”

So now the Republican right wing is going to force a vote on a budget that defunds healthcare reform, a resolution that the Senate is all but guaranteed to reject and that even if it were passed, President Obama would veto. On the theory that they’re going to find a way of pushing this through, Cantor has hinted that Congress might skip its end of the month recess to continue working until the bitter end to reach a deal, though Cantor’s right flank seems to have made a deal impossible. This is no way to run a trillion dollar government. For nonprofits, it is a recipe for indecision, resource constraints, and more confusion.—Rick Cohen