Congress faces a full plate to avoid sequestration

Congress returns from August recess on Sept. 8 and the clock is ticking.

With 24 calendar days — just 10 of them working — before the end of the fiscal year, Congress needs to decide what to do on pressing issues ranging from appropriation bills to transportation projects, and make time for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and a visit from Pope Francis.

Members, stakeholders and government analysts understand it’s a short month with a full agenda — let’s not forget the need to address the retiree cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), and Medicare and health premiums — but one way or another, lawmakers and the White House must reach an agreement on how to fund the federal government. Just how that spending plan will look, and its effect on the federal workforce and industry is yet to be determined, but the last thing anyone wants to hear is the s-word.

Sequestration, shutdown or continuing resolution

“If Congress doesn’t agree on a budget by Oct. 1, we’ll see the return of these mindless, across-the-board sequestration cuts,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va), a ranking member of the subcommittee on fiscal responsibility and economic growth. “The last thing the U.S. economy needs is the self-inflicted damage of another budget drama and idle talk about potential government shutdowns.”

Congress has until Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal 2015, to make a decision on 12 spending bills to avoid a shutdown and figure out whether automatic budget cuts will take effect once again.

The 2013 sequester resulted in furloughs, shuttered museums and parks, and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in economic growth.

“The threat of another government shutdown is very real,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s subcommittee on Government Operations. “This would be an unwelcome jolt given the current international and financial market volatility. Of course, the threat of sequestration also will negatively affect the economy. Congressional Democrats and the President have been saying for months that we need to stave off the harmful effects of these across the board cuts.”

The key, said Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) during an interview with Federal News Radio, is compromise.

“Two years ago when we were facing a similar dynamic after Republicans shut down the government, we were able to pull together a short term budget agreement, the Murray-Ryan agreement … that avoided the worst of the sequester, those deep cuts,” said Van Hollen, ranking member of the Committee on the Budget. “But that agreement expired and so we’re once again in uncharted territory and we want Republicans to come to the table so we can work this out and avoid a government shutdown.”

Federal News Radio reached out to congressional members on both sides of the aisle and included comments from every member that responded to the request.

An option that seems to be the logical solution, at least temporarily, according to interest groups and political analysts, is a continuing resolution.

A CR would maintain current funding while Congress hammers out its future funding plans. The downside, however, is that agencies, employees and contractors would be held in planning limbo as they wait to hear what their final budgets will be for the coming year and whether sequestration cuts would be necessary.

“Under a CR, you cannot start new programs, you can only continue the programs that were already under way at the same funding levels,” said Roger Jordan, vice president of government affairs for the Professional Services Council, in interview with Federal News Radio. “That impacts the ability for agencies to plan, for companies to plan, because under a CR you still have a lot of ambiguity about what your full year funding is going to look like.”

Jordan said though unlikely, the best case scenario is an omnibus package, in which all of the spending is wrapped into one measure.

But Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged that while reaching agreement on the appropriations “will be a challenge,” she was optimistic on how things would shake out.

“At the end of the day the government will get funded, at the end of the day they also have to raise the debt limit by December,” Binder said. “I think at the end of the day with a Democrat in the White House who has the potential to veto what Republicans might send him, that at the end of the day they’ll probably get a fairly clean spending bill with none of these policy riders and a clean debt limit similar to what we’ve seen in the past.”

Defense and cybersecurity

Appropriations bills aside, Congress also will face decisions on defense and cybersecurity.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed the Senate in June. The House passed its version as well, but conference negotiations didn’t finish before the August recess.

Within the package is an overhaul of military retirement and “performance contracts” for program officials. The provision creates a “middle tier” of acquisition traditional and rapid acquisitions, and also champions the use of more commercial technologies.

“One of the big debates around the budget issues is how to provide additional funding for Defense while at the same time increasing the funding for civilian agencies,” Jordan said. “I think that there is somewhat of an appetite to raise the defense funding, obviously in the Republican caucus there seems to be a lot of support for that. What Democrats are asking for is that there be a similar increase in civilian agency funding.”

The controversial bill would allow sharing of digital information between companies and the government in the spirit of protecting against cyber threats. Critics argue the bill intrudes on Internet privacy.

In an ongoing effort to protect its employees privacy, earlier this month OPM announced that a contract had been awarded by DoD to provide identity theft and other personal information protection services to victims directly impacted by the OPM cyber breach.

“The recent breaches at OPM amount to the most catastrophic compromises of sensitive, personally identifiable information in our nation’s history, and I’m afraid it simply reflects the new normal,” Connolly said. “The House has passed two bills this year to encourage voluntary sharing of cyber threat information between the public and private sectors, and the Senate is working on companion legislation, but information sharing alone is not enough. This and other high-profile breaches should serve as a wakeup call for Congress to get serious about strengthening our nation’s cyber workforce, establishing effective data breach notification policies, and bringing about a wholesale cultural revolution so that policy makers and the public finally understand the critical importance of cyber safety.”

Similarly, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said in an email to Federal News Radio that he hoped momentum from earlier this summer would continue.

“Congress needs to provide agencies with the best tools to stop cyber intrusions,” Carper said. “The cyber intrusion detection and prevention system currently known as EINSTEIN is a valuable tool that can help agencies detect and block cyber threats before they can cause too much harm. The threats we face in cyberspace are too great for us to do nothing.”

EINSTEIN is a system which creates a government perimeter around agency networks to protect against cyber threats.

Highway funding and the Postal Service

“Kick the can down the road” is a phrase many have used in reference to funding 2016, but some members also are looking to put a stop to lingering issues such as transportation funding and the fate of the Postal Service.

According to the Department of Transportation, both the highway account and mass transit account of the Highway Trust Fund will hit shortfalls in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2016. Earlier this summer Congress applied yet another short term patch  — the 34th Band-Aid since 2009, Connolly pointed out.

“Until and unless our Republican colleagues can bring themselves to vote for new revenue to fuel road and transit investments, it will be difficult to cobble together a robust multi-year transportation program,” he said. “Transportation projects are not short-term ventures. I remember vividly from my days in local government that it takes years to plan, design and build a major transportation improvement, whether it’s improving an interchange on the Fairfax County Parkway or extending Metro to Dulles Airport. Our state and local partners need to know funding will be there before they invest that kind of time and effort to get a project ready.”

Connolly said he also would be looking to address the struggles of the Postal Service.

In early August, the service announced a $586 million net loss in the third quarter of 2015. The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses.

“As ranking member of the subcommittee with legislative and oversight jurisdiction over the Postal Service, I have been engaged in bipartisan conversations to develop constructive legislation that would allow the Postal Service to respond to changing demand without eliminating services for wide swaths of our country,” Connolly said. “Unlike the destructive process in the last Congress, there finally appears to be a consensus on the committee that the only way truly comprehensive and lasting postal reform can advance through the 114th Congress is if there is broad, bipartisan support among members that represent diverse districts ranging from sparse rural communities to dense urban centers to hybrid suburban areas. While it is far from guaranteed that we will be successful — even the initiation of genuine, bipartisan engagement indicates that the House majority is ready to abandon its goal of abrogating a constitutional responsibility, which would have dismantled the universal service standard, undermined a trillion-dollar private mailing industry, and eviscerated middle class jobs for postal employees.”

Carper said he also was committed to bipartisan work during this session to give the Postal Service “the tools it needs to survive and prosper in the years to come.”

“Over the past several months, we have held a number of briefings and round tables to provide members and the public an opportunity to better understand the challenges facing the Postal Service and help begin the process of addressing reform this Congress,” he said.

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