After two brief government shutdowns and five stopgap funding bills, Congress appears ready to pass a comprehensive budget for fiscal 2018 this week.
But when asked Monday if lawmakers would pass an omnibus spending bill before midnight Friday, the deadline to avert yet another government shutdown, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told an audience of federal employees that it’s still a toss-up.
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“Some of you might ask, what’s going to happen this week with the budget? I have no idea. Worse than that, I don’t think anybody on Capitol Hill knows,” Cardin told Census Bureau employees at a town hall meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Suitland, Maryland.
Lawmakers returned to the bargaining table on Monday, and could reach a final budget agreement later tonight. The Associated Press reported a budget vote in the House could happen as early as Wednesday.
“We’ll see what happens when we get there tonight. But we have to start moving if we want to get it done by Friday. I hope we get it done this week. I don’t want to see any more CRs. We want to get it done. You all need the predictability,” Cardin said.
While Congress appears ready for another round of eleventh-hour budget negotiations, Cardin said appropriators and congressional leaders have already reached an agreement on the final budget numbers.
However, he added that non-budget issues, like immigration and health care, have held up a vote.
“These are all issues that members are bringing into the budget debate. Since this bill will be signed into law, a lot of people look at this as one of the last trains to leave the station on trying to get bills passed, so they’re trying to load it up with a lot of different bills,” Cardin said.
While lawmakers typically pay little-to-no attention to the president’s annual budget proposal, Cardin said President Trump’s 2019 budget request was rendered especially moot after Congress passed a two-year budget agreement last month.
“It was a bipartisan agreement, which is what we need for predictability and stability. When you look at these numbers, and you recognize where President Trump’s budget was, you know that this is a true, bipartisan compromise, one that really represents you having the resources you need, and your brother and sister agencies in government having the resources that they need in order to carry out their responsibility,” Cardin said.
However, Cardin added that President Trump’s budget is also “dead on arrival” for the way it treats the federal workforce.
“There are things in the budget that, in my view, and in the view of the majority of the members of Congress, we’re not going to pass,” he said.
President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal calls for a freeze on federal pay. However, members of the military would receive a 2.6 percent raise.
Cardin said he’d support at least a 3.2 percent pay raise for federal employees.
The president’s 2019 budget would also increase the amount federal employees pay for their retirement and health benefits.
“You’ve made tremendous sacrifices in order to try to help us deal with the budget deficit. You’ve gotten freezes and inadequate pay raises over the last decade. You’ve seen your missions increase while having a smaller workforce to deal with it. You’ve gone through sequestration, you’ve gone through government shutdowns. We’ve gone through asking our new federal employees to pay more for their pension benefits. All that’s been added to the burdens of federal workers,” Cardin said.
More than anything else, Cardin said passage of a full budget this week — nearly halfway through the fiscal year — would bring a sense of spending assurance to agencies.
That sense of budget security, he added, would help the Census Bureau as it enters a critical stage in preparing for the 2020 population count. In April, the agency will conduct its first — and only — full-stage field test for its new IT systems in Providence, Rhode Island.
The Census Bureau scaled back two other tests in rural West Virginia and suburban Washington state due to budget shortfalls.
“It’s more important to know what the budget number will be, even than what the budget numbers are. Obviously, you want the resources you need to carry out the responsibilities, but if you know what the resources are, you can plan for it. You don’t know what the resources are, you’re in the worst possible shape. So we’re hoping that the numbers for this year and next year will be locked in, so that you can use, on a predictable basis, the money that you have,” Cardin said.
Last year, the Census Bureau estimated that the 2020 count will cost $15.6 billion in total — more than a 27 percent increase from the 2010 count.
“You tell me how much you need, and I’m going to fight to get you that amount of resources. I want the count to be accurate, I don’t want it to be political … I don’t want to see imposed restrictions on the way that you do it, that prevents you from giving us accurate information,” Cardin said.