The Unnecessary Federal Budget Impasse

Let’s be straight about the politics of the federal budget. The Republicans control the House, Senate and Presidency, but partly because they are not united and partly because they are short of the 60 votes needed under current practices to move most legislation in the Senate, they are unable to pass a budget without Democratic support. So to pass a full-year budget, Republicans and Democrats must compromise.

The federal government is shut down today because too many Republicans in Congress won’t compromise and because President Trump doesn’t appear to know what he really wants.

Democrats are demanding that their key priorities be included in the budget: restoration of DACA protections for the children of undocumented immigrants who have spent almost all of their lives in the United States; reauthorization of the CHIP program that provides health care for millions of American kids (including over 100,000 in Pennsylvania), and additional funding for community health centers, worker pensions, the growing opioid epidemic, and disaster relief for Americans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

None of these Democratic demands are extreme or even especially partisan. By large majorities, American support all of them. A majority of Republicans in the country and the Senate support all of them, and there is a Republican majority in the House for CHIP reauthorization. In the case of DACA, there was no need for the current dispute at all. President Trump didn’t have to revoke President Obama’s executive order on DACA.

So why haven’t Democrats and Republicans in Congress and President Trump reached an agreement on the budget for this year? What is the hold up?

There are two problems. The first will remind us of the situation here in Pennsylvania: An extremist group among Republicans in the House of Representatives are delaying an agreement. They are opposed to a reasonable compromise on DACA. They don’t want to spend more on disaster relief. Many don’t want to spend more on the opioid problem, either. Speaker Paul Ryan has invoked the “Hastert” rule, saying he won’t bring legislation to the floor that is not supported by a majority of the Republicans.

The other problem is President Trump. He is both making demands that Democrats are reluctant to accept and being inconsistent in those demands.

The president’s key demand is to spend $18 billion on a new border wall with Mexico. This is just a waste of money. Illegal immigration from Mexico is at the lowest level since 2010 and in recent years more Mexicans have emigrated from our country than immigrated to it. There is also no reason to think that a wall will do much to stop the illegal immigration that continues.

Still, Democrats have been willing to spend some money for the wall this year. But that leads to another problem. The president, who prides himself on his negotiating skills, can’t seem to make up his mind about what he wants. How far does his demand for a wall go? How much is he willing to back the demands of Republican extremists in the House on DACA as opposed to seeking a compromise agreement? No one really knows because he says one thing one day and another thing the next.

Between the extremism of so many Republican House members and the president’s inconsistency, reaching a compromise agreement on this year’s budget has been far harder than necessary. And that is true even though Democrats have reluctantly acceded to many Republican demands, especially about spending more than they think is necessary on defense and spending something on the border wall. But Democrats are rightly not compromising on policy goals supported by the majority of Americans. 

We need to do right by the Dreamers. We need to reauthorize CHIP. We need more money for disaster relief, community health centers, and opioid addiction. These are not ideological, left-wing demands. They are simply common sense responses to problems almost every American wants to solve.

Unless President Trump and the Republican extremists decide they want to solve them too, this budget impasse and government closure could continue.

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