This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
The recent budget agreement between House and Senate leaders and President Donald Trump (the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019) is being touted as averting a shutdown, preventing a default on our national debt, and preventing any “poison pills” that would prevent the president from carrying out his agenda. While much of the coverage is focused on the debt ceiling and avoiding a default, I have also read headlines that say “shutdown averted” or something similar. The agreement suspends the debt ceiling for another two years, so it does eliminate the potential for a catastrophic default on our national debt. The “poison pills” agreement is a bit more vague, and the idea that it guarantees there will be no shutdown is wrong.
The debt ceiling issue is one where many members of Congress just cannot bring themselves to admit that they are raising the debt limit. So, instead of raising it, the agreement is a “temporary suspension of the public debt limit.” It has the necessary effect of avoiding the destruction of the full faith and credit of the United States, while allowing people to claim they never voted to raise the debt limit. The effect is the same.
The “poison pills” agreement is far more vague. It requires bipartisan agreement to include policy requirements in appropriations. The degree to which this is effective is entirely dependent on what the participants think is a poison pill. Prohibiting use of any funds to pay for a border wall is likely to be considered a poison pill that is subject to the agreement. Workforce-related issues may not fit the definition. For example, what if the Democrats do not want to fund moving OPM to GSA and OMB? Declining to appropriate the extra money that the administration requested to pay for it is clearly not a poison pill. Would a prohibition on using any OPM’s appropriated or working capital fund dollars to move any OPM functions out of the agency pass muster? Maybe. If it can get enough votes. The same applies to provisions that might reverse the administration’s moves to restrict collective bargaining and hamstring the unions. Get enough votes and it isn’t a poison pill. Then the question is whether the president would veto an appropriations bill over those issues. My guess would be no, because they are not the issues where he has typically focused. While they are very important for federal workers, they are really on the edge of the president’s radar.
So has a shutdown been averted? Maybe, but I recommend federal workers at least be prepared for another shutdown. The recent agreement covers the top line numbers for Defense and non-Defense spending. It has not been passed by the Senate and some conservative Senators are opposing it. The odds are good that it will pass and the president has said he will sign it.
Anyone who knows how government works understands that is just the first step. It is clearly a big one, but it is not the last step. Now we get to see how long it takes the House and Senate to pass appropriations bills (or more likely an omnibus appropriations bill). The wheels can come off the whole process if they cannot reach agreement on the details, or if one side thinks the other is trying to include a poison pill in violation of the agreement. The folks on both sides of the aisle who do not like the agreement or who have strong views on particular issues are not going to go away quietly. That means there is still a chance that an issue will emerge that derails the appropriations bills.
You may recall that the 35-day 2018/2019 shutdown happened after the House, Senate and White House were supposed to have a deal. Everyone was moving toward passing what had been agreed to, then far-right media outlets convinced the president that he needed to take a stand for his wall. An agreement turned into a shutdown that virtually everyone agreed was in no ones interest. Could something like that happen again? Would Congress and the White House risk a shutdown heading into an election year? You may say, “Of course not!” Before you say that, think back to the beginning of 2018 (another election year) when we had a shutdown.
Most Americans think shutdowns are stupid and an example of how dysfunctional our politics have become. Where we used to have folks focusing on what the majority of Americans wanted, now they focus on what the far-right and far-left want, and stupid things happen. The budget agreement takes a default off the table and makes a shutdown far less likely, but it certainly does not guarantee that there will not be a shutdown. If I were still a federal employee, I would prepare accordingly.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.