Continuing Resolution to avoid government shutdown likely, but a fiscal cliff still looms

Congress has only 10 days left to pass a budget for fiscal year 2016 spending and avoid a government shutdown now that it’s back in session.

headshot of David Hawkings
David Hawkings, senior editor, Roll Call

In the week and a half it has, Congress must either pass budget bills for a flurry of different initiatives including appropriations, the Highway Restoration Act and the Defense budget, or pass a continuing resolution that pushes decision-making deadlines to one of two timelines: near the end of October, or close to Thanksgiving in November.

In an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose, David Hawkings, the senior editor of Roll Call, said a continuing resolution will likely happen because it forces Congress to address everything that’s piled up.

“Some would say well that’s silly because they’re not going to get this whole big huge budget done by the end of October anymore than they have all year,” Hawkings said. ” The reason to have it last only until the end of October is that hooks the regular budget up with this huge showdown over highway funding and some on some on both sides of the aisle think that actually helps because it sets the table for an even bigger budget deal.”

Hawkings called the pile up a “fiscal cliff” that builds upon the “too big to fail” mentality. Hawkings said Congress is on track toward talks, but it’s still a huge gamble.

“As best as we can tell, while there has been staff negotiations over the summer and we do know that there have been some bipartisan negotiations at the staff level, the principles have not signaled any of their desires of how they want to proceed,” he said. “Time’s getting tight already.”

However, talks for the Defense budget in particular could prove difficult since Democrats and Republicans agree on increases for its budget, but not on how to do so.

“The President would do it by raising the budget caps and giving an equal increase to the non-defense side of the budget. The Republicans would do it by using war funding, but not increasing anything else,” said Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Headshot of Todd Harrison
Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “Ultimately, this isn’t about defense because they seem to agree on the level of defense spending. what they don’t agree on is the non-defense side of the budget and all of the other factors that go into developing the total federal budget.

Harrison said the agree-to-disagree mentality creates an impasse for the entire DoD budget.

“I have to admit, I’m not that optimistic that they’re going to be able to workout a deal even though both sides agree on this higher level of spending,” he said. But the threat of a sequester in 2016 is unlikely, according to Harrison, because Congress would have to purposely appropriate more money into the base budget than the caps allow.

“Sequestration would only be triggered if Congress does something really stupid that it doesn’t look like it’s going to do,” he said. “If they’re going to appropriate more than the budget cap, they’re going to raise the budget cap.”

September is really more than half over in terms of Congress, and a very short timetable for them according to Hawkings, and he said not much work is actually getting done.

“We’re definitely going to have a CR [continuing resolution] a stop gap bill to take us from the beginning of October,” Hawkings said. “The two questions are … how long is it going to last and what sort of policy riders are going to gum up the works?”