Lobbyists and other government relations types who ply their trade in the nation’s capital are surely grabbing their last few moments of uninterrupted sleep for some time to come. That is because September will be a month to remember.
Congress returns to town on Sept. 9th, and rarely have so many divisive issues whose solutions are mandatory awaited its attention. Furthermore, members of the U. S. House and Senate are coming back to work fortified with an earful of instructions from their districts and states delivered to them in the fever of the August recess.
It would be enough if the pressure was simply one of cobbling together the federal budget for a new fiscal year and passing it within 21 days of arriving back in town. Daunting as that time frame would be, it would seem downright leisurely compared to the growing mountain of work that could once be delayed but is now unavoidable. And, lest we forget, there is that added little matter that picked up during the summer break — a certain-to-be bitter debate over U. S. action in the Syrian civil war.
It would be instructive to take a quick look at some of the big issues and the cross pressures that are adding a feeling of desperation to an already tight situation. And if September was not enough, the first day of October brings us the first major point of public involvement in Obamacare. That is when the signup for plans in the health care exchanges may begin. Many observers feel that if Obamacare is not derailed by then the build up in momentum will be too great to ever stop it.
But as fate would have it, in this highly partisan environment those on the right believe that two distinct possibilities exist to hold hostage the funding for the formally named Affordable Care Act. The requirement to pass a budget, or at least a continuing resolution, has a Sept. 30 deadline. If Congress fails to pass at least a continuing resolution, which basically says that agencies may continue spending at current levels, then government coffers would essentially be out of money and most government services would grind to a halt. A significant group of Republicans has expressed a willingness to do just that if any funding for Obamacare is included in expenditure plans.
If holding back on the budget proves unworkable for leveraging purposes the moment is upon us in which Congress must take what was once a routine vote to raise the debt ceiling so that we may continue using our “line of credit” for expenditures. Failure to raise the debt ceiling means the U. S. government would default on all manner of obligations already made. There are several who have expressed a preference for this approach in toppling funding for Obamacare.
Of course the aforementioned predictably rancorous fight over military action in Syria must precede the fights over these two issues and several more besides. Lost in the shuffle, for example, is the $40 billion in nutrition programs that fell by the wayside when the House passed its version of the farm bill. All of these debates carry with them the possibilities of rearranging alliances among members and between members and the president.
What is the upshot of all of this? Past history shows that Congress will roll up its sleeves and put aside partisan bickering and get these issues settled for the good of the country. What is the likelihood of such a scenario unfolding today? If the continued heated rhetoric is taken at face value, chances appear slim. Republicans in particular are returning from districts and states where they have been promised primary opponents who are even more conservative than they themselves are. All have had their pledges never to compromise reinforced by the folks back home.
Indeed, we are likely to get our best lessons yet on how a government built to run on compromise works when its incumbents refuse to do so. No doubt there will be votes cast by congressmen and senators on both sides of the aisle that can best be described as career-risking acts of bravery. Let us all hope that there are enough of these to get us through these times.
» Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.