With an all-too familiar feel to it, we’re heading towards a Washington fiscal cliff with scant reason to imagine an increasingly divided Congress being able to hit the brakes to avoid it.
The House and Senate spending gap in their “appropriations bills in progress” is $91 billion. The two houses of Congress aren't even operating on a shared premise. The House assumes current sequestration levels as a baseline and delivers another more sequestration cuts. Worse, they abandon shared pain between military and domestic appropriations, applying even larger sequestration cuts only to domestic spending.
The Senate assumes no added sequestration in the coming budget and essentially rolls back the current fiscal year’s sequestration, too.
The fiscal new year, October 1, is in sight. Reaching October 1 with no resolution leaves the government without authority to spend on “non-essential” programs. That’d “shut down government” for most programs. It would quickly affect health and human service programs America’s most vulnerable people count on just to get by.
In the past, if Congress couldn't complete the budget on time, they’d routinely pass a “Continuing Resolution” keeping things running, typically at current level, as they completed the budget process. That would probably happen again, but lots of smart analysts bet it won’t happen by October 1, or necessarily at continuing levels.
For more deja vu, we’re expected to run out of borrowing capacity – go over the authorized debt limit – perhaps around mid-November. Hitting the debt limit means government would be unable to pay some bills we've already incurred. It’s reminiscent of our last “fiscal cliff,” negotiating both budget levels and the debt ceiling in tandem.
Don’t look for quick action. Congress is in “summer recess.” The next session of Congress is set for after Labor Day. It gives us all an opportunity to do our civic duty and tell our representatives which programs are important to us.
It’s worth the effort to save funding for vital programs like health care for people experiencing homelessness, Section 8 rental vouchers, affordable housing and programs for kids. We want Congress to get things done on time, but not by compromising the programs people in need depend on.