Members of Congress are coming close to an agreement for how to fund the government for the 2020 fiscal year, according to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. But whether a budget actually passes will be determined by an unpredictable White House.
“If you were to leave this to the House and the Senate and the Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, we would have an agreement. The wildcard here is the Trump administration,” Van Hollen told reporters at a meeting with National Treasury Employees Union members at the Food and Drug Administration.
“That’s what happened last time. We had an agreement — in fact, the White House had signed off on the agreement that had been reached on Capitol Hill — and [President Donald] Trump pulled the rug out from under the agreement and shut down the government.”
The 2018 shutdown began after Trump reversed course on a decision to accept a clean continuing resolution for government operations, instead demanding that any funding legislation include money for construction of a wall at the southern border.
Democrats and Republicans could not reach consensus on such a demand, sending the government into a partial shutdown from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019.
The conditions at the end of 2019 are eerily similar, as Congress must pass a continuing resolution or full funding bills by Dec. 20 or shut down any part of the government without such legislation, and the border wall still remains a point of contention.
The current situation differs from 2018 in at least one aspect, however, as Congress and the White House have agreed to a topline number for what the budget should look like.
“The reason I have some optimism is that the House and the Senate have agreed to what we call the overall funding levels for each of the 12 appropriations categories,” said Van Hollen.
“What that means is that for each of these categories of federal spending, we have agreed how much will be available. What we have not yet fully agreed to is how it will all be allocated.”
Progress has been made in recent negotiations between Congress and the White House, such as a tentative agreement to provide paid parental leave for federal employees in exchange for provisions concerning the Space Force in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020.
“Republicans continue to resist this, it’s just that because the president wanted his space force that they were willing to reach the agreement,” said Van Hollen.
“We may not have the whole thing, but I do believe we’re close, at least on the parental leave portion. We’ll then have to work on the other piece, the medical leave piece.”
Van Hollen also warned against wholesale solutions to stop government shutdowns altogether, such as proposals to institute an automatic continuing resolution should Congress not come to an agreement on the budget.
Such a provision could amount to automatic budget cuts, as some members of Congress could block budget proposals knowing that last year’s dollar won’t stretch quite as far as it did before.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.