A Guide to the Twisted Thicket of Bills in Congress

Congress needs to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling. You’d need a flow chart to figure out all the complications, but we’re here to help.

By Maggie Astor

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You know that GIF of Donald Glover carrying a stack of pizza boxes into a room, only to freeze upon seeing that everything is on fire?

Let’s talk about Congress.

Unless you’re a congressional reporter or staff member — or, really, even if you are — you could be forgiven for wondering what is happening there this week. It’s a great big dumpster full of substantive political disagreements and cynical posturing, tangled so tightly together that it can be hard to tell which is which. And the stakes are alarmingly high.

First, there are two things Congress needs to do: fund the government by Oct. 1 and raise the debt ceiling by sometime in October. These are basic, Government 101 responsibilities, and the consequences of failure would be catastrophic. Republicans are insisting that Democrats fulfill them alone, while making that almost impossible.

Then there are two things the Democrats who control Congress want to do: pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill (a priority of moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats) and pass a $3.5 trillion partisan package containing much of President Biden’s domestic agenda (a priority of progressive Democrats).

The bipartisan bill is supposed to receive a vote on Monday. But it probably won’t have enough support from progressives to pass unless the partisan bill passes first. But there’s no way the partisan bill can pass that quickly. But the moderates and conservatives won’t agree to postpone the vote.

Like I said, it’s a mess. Let’s look at the four fires one at a time.

The debt ceiling

Refusing to raise the debt ceiling — a limit on how much the federal government can borrow to make expenditures that Congress has already authorized — is basically a game of chicken with the economy. If the ceiling isn’t raised in time, the U.S. can’t pay its bills, including essential obligations like Social Security benefits, military salaries and interest on existing loans.

This would be economically ruinous, and while the country has come close to doing it before, it has never happened. Congress has always acted in the end.

Understand the Infrastructure Bill

    • One trillion dollar package passed. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan infrastructure package on Aug. 10, capping weeks of intense negotiations and debate over the largest federal investment in the nation’s aging public works system in more than a decade.
    • The final vote. The final tally in the Senate was 69 in favor to 30 against. The legislation, which still must pass the House, would touch nearly every facet of the American economy and fortify the nation’s response to the warming of the planet.
    • Main areas of spending. Overall, the bipartisan plan focuses spending on transportation, utilities and pollution cleanup.
    • Transportation. About $110 billion would go to roads, bridges and other transportation projects; $25 billion for airports; and $66 billion for railways, giving Amtrak the most funding it has received since it was founded in 1971.
    • Utilities. Senators have also included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it, and $8 billion for Western water infrastructure.
    • Pollution cleanup: Roughly $21 billion would go to cleaning up abandoned wells and mines, and Superfund sites.

    The particularly exhausting thing about this latest running of the exercise is that both parties acknowledge the debt ceiling must be raised — but Republicans are insisting that Democrats do it alone while simultaneously preventing them from doing so through regular procedures.

    Unlike in past runnings, Republicans are not demanding anything in exchange for their support. They are simply refusing, citing their opposition to Democrats’ planned spending, even though the increase is needed to cover something else: spending that Congress has already approved. (The Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts have contributed significantly to the debt ceiling’s being reached, and it would have to be raised even without another penny of spending by Democrats.) While the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, is arguing that it is the responsibility of the party in power to raise the ceiling, Democrats voted to do so on a bipartisan basis when Republicans were in power.

    In other words, the whole thing is about political posturing. And even Republicans who have sometimes bucked the party line are playing along.

    “Democrats can solve this all by themselves,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters this week. “They have the votes to do it. Do it.”

    In theory, that’s true — if Republicans don’t filibuster. But Republicans intend to filibuster, creating a 60-vote threshold in the Senate that Democrats cannot meet alone.

    Democrats could avoid a filibuster by using the budget reconciliation process, but that is filled with parliamentary obstacles. In a statement on Wednesday, Representative John Yarmuth, Democrat of Kentucky and chairman of the House Budget Committee, said it would be impossible to complete it before the government defaults, and called on Mr. McConnell to allow Senate passage of a regular bill that the House passed this week.

    Funding the government

    Congress needs to pass legislation to extend government funding for another couple of months, until it can negotiate full spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. If it doesn’t, the government will shut down.

    Unlike a debt default, this has happened before, most recently in December 2018. But it would still be deeply harmful, both to the economy and to the government’s pandemic response.

    On its own, the temporary funding measure is not controversial, and in fact, it includes crucial spending — for disaster recovery, for instance — that Republicans and Democrats alike want for their states. But because Democrats packaged it with the debt ceiling increase in an effort to pressure Republicans to support that, it is caught in the crossfire.

    Democrats passed the funding and debt ceiling bill in the House on Tuesday with no Republican votes, but they can’t do the same in the Senate because of the filibuster.

    The bipartisan bill

    About six weeks ago, the Senate approved a $1.2 trillion package (including $550 billion in new federal spending) to strengthen the nation’s physical infrastructure. The vote, after months of tortuous negotiations between the White House and lawmakers from both parties, was unusually bipartisan, with 19 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats in support.

    But the House hasn’t taken it up yet, because a majority of the House Progressive Caucus won’t vote for it until the larger, partisan bill (more on that in a minute) passes. Mr. Biden and top congressional Democrats — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader — agreed on a “two-track” strategy that ties each bill’s fate to the other’s. They settled on this as the only way to pass both, given the competing priorities of the party’s progressive and conservative wings.

    Biden’s 2022 Budget

    The 2022 fiscal year for the federal government begins on October 1, and President Biden has revealed what he’d like to spend, starting then. But any spending requires approval from both chambers of Congress. Here’s what the plan includes:

      • Ambitious total spending: President Biden would like the federal government to spend $6 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year, and for total spending to rise to $8.2 trillion by 2031. That would take the United States to its highest sustained levels of federal spending since World War II, while running deficits above $1.3 trillion through the next decade.
      • Infrastructure plan: The budget outlines the president’s desired first year of investment in his American Jobs Plan, which seeks to fund improvements to roads, bridges, public transit and more with a total of $2.3 trillion over eight years.
      • Families plan: The budget also addresses the other major spending proposal Biden has already rolled out, his American Families Plan, aimed at bolstering the United States’ social safety net by expanding access to education, reducing the cost of child care and supporting women in the work force.
      • Mandatory programs: As usual, mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare make up a significant portion of the proposed budget. They are growing as America’s population ages.
      • Discretionary spending: Funding for the individual budgets of the agencies and programs under the executive branch would reach around $1.5 trillion in 2022, a 16 percent increase from the previous budget.
      • How Biden would pay for it: The president would largely fund his agenda by raising taxes on corporations and high earners, which would begin to shrink budget deficits in the 2030s. Administration officials have said tax increases would fully offset the jobs and families plans over the course of 15 years, which the budget request backs up. In the meantime, the budget deficit would remain above $1.3 trillion each year.

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