Working on "Political Time"
As all of Washington – and, in fact, the United States – awaits news from the Capitol confirming that leaders in Congress have formally reached an agreement on another COVID relief bill, an infuriating truth is once again resurfaced. While everyone procrastinates, no one procrastinates like Congress.
As readers are well aware, federal lawmakers have been working for nearly nine months on a fourth coronavirus relief bill. Two weeks ago we noted the fact that Congress has not yet been able to arrive at an agreement means several pandemic relief programs could expire on December 31, 2020. Lawmakers also are more than 60 days past September 30, 2020, the start of fiscal year (FY) 2021 and the date by which they were supposed to have FY 2021 spending bills finished.
Yet, here we are – less than 10 days from Christmas and only two days from the expiration of the one-week continuing resolution Congress passed just last week to give themselves time to reach a broader deal. But despite the frustration, there’s reason for optimism: if past is precedent, there will be a deal at some point in the coming days.
That’s because the scrambling in Washington is nothing new. Here is how Politico explained things in October 2015: “Thanks to an endlessly complicated scheme of resolutions and committees, Washington every year cycles through a charade of planning, followed by brinksmanship overspending, followed by shutdown threats and debt-ceiling showdowns and some kind of after-deadline scramble to prevent a globally humiliating default.” That same year, Washington Post writer Amber Phillips noted, “Raising the debt ceiling? Passing a spending bill? Renewals of highway-funding bills and tax breaks? Congress waits until the last minute to get stuff done so often that it's basically the status quo now.”
In fact, according to GovTrack, a private, apolitical website that tracks federal legislation, “about half of all legislation that will be enacted” in any given session of Congress “is enacted only in the final quarter of the session.” That means 50 percent of what lawmakers get done over a two-year period is finished sometime between late September and late December of the second year.
The Urban Institute’s Rudolph Penner blamed the fact that, well, lawmakers are just like the rest of us. Penner told The Post’s Phillips that “It’s just human nature to try to put things off, especially when those things involve difficult decisions.”
Perhaps he is right.
According to U.S. Senate historians, there is evidence of lawmakers staying in session until the last minute going back to the early 1800s. Back then, congressional sessions concluded in early March rather than December – and, at that point, even the precise time of adjournment was up for debate. Historians explain:
“As early-nineteenth-century members approached a final session’s crucial closing minutes, they regularly questioned whether the Congress expired at midnight on March 3, or noon on March 4. Surprisingly, this fundamental point remained unsettled for decades. Finally, at midnight on March 3, 1851, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis declared that his term had expired and refused to vote when further roll calls were ordered. This sparked a discussion of the difference between a natural day, beginning at midnight, and a ‘political’ day, starting at noon.”
Not only did federal lawmakers introduce the concept of a “political day,” they “often gained extra time for last-minute appropriations bills by sending a doorkeeper, pole in hand, to gently move the chamber clock's minute hand from natural time to ‘political’ time.”
The clock is no different these days and it usually still is appropriations bills that are the cause of the last-minute angst.
Here is where Congress was at this time last year, according to a Boston television station, for example: they still had “not finalized a giant package of bills to fund the operations of the federal government for 2020” even though “the current temporary funding bill” ran out on December 20 and a shutdown was looming.
And here is where lawmakers were in September 2016, just before the end of that fiscal year: as Vox explained, Democrats in the House and Senate were threatening to shut down the federal government “without federal funding to deal with the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan.” They came up with a deal less than 72 hours before the end of the fiscal year.
And what about December 2011? According to Politico, the Obama administration was “desperate to avoid the kind of political theater that characterized this summer's shutdown fight and the debt ceiling debate but the sense of brinksmanship is creeping back in the battle over two-year end bills, including a spending measure to keep the government operating and a payroll tax cut extension.”
Then there is this account from November 1981: according to The Washington Post, “The almost annual crises over keeping the government in spending money sent thousands of nonessential workers home early, closed the Statue of Liberty, forced the secretary of transportation to consider using public transport instead of his chauffeur-driven limousine--and settled nothing.” The Post also noted, “With increasing regularity in recent years, Congress has failed to send appropriations bills to the president in time for action before deadlines that prohibit federal spending on many activities.”
While the final three months of a congressional session are especially fraught, hard deadlines spur action at other times of the year as well. Earlier this year, for example, House lawmakers forged a deal to renew an important surveillance bill just four days before programs were set to expire. In February 2014, lawmakers were juggling the expirations of several major programs, including for the National Flood Insurance Program. At the time, NBC News said Congress was “pushing the envelope again” and expected lawmakers “to work into the weekend to avoid facing constituents next week empty-handed:”
Debt ceiling deadlines also are action-forcing events in Washington. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, for example, in 1979 Congress passed an increase “the federal debt limit with little time to spare before the federal government would have defaulted on payments for the first time in modern history.” The same thing has happened several times over the intervening 40 years.
Unfortunately, running up against the debt ceiling clock has had real consequences for the American economy. In a 2017 report, the Democratic staff of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee noted, “Over the past handful of years debt ceiling politics and threats to default on U.S. creditors did real damage to America’s reputation. In 2011, the credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating to AA+, the first time in 70 years that the U.S. did not earn an AAA rating (the highest possible rating). S&P cited the ‘prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling’ as a primary factor.”
And the problem of last-minute lawmaking is not unique to federal lawmakers.
According to The History Channel, in the early 20th century, suffragettes used the 1920 presidential election to propel state action on the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote in federal elections.
In a 2017 article, Tim Anaya of the Pacific Research Institute recalled his time as a staff member in the California legislature. He explained that “there would be a handful of bills every year that were brought to life by majority Democrats at the very last minute before key legislative deadlines.” As a result, in 2016 “fed-up California voters passed Prop. 54 to require that bills be in their final form for 72 hours before votes are taken.” Less than a year after that vote, Anaya argued, “Prop. 54 is already doing what voters intended by ending last-minute deal-making.”
Do federal lawmakers need a similar rule?
Kenneth Baer, a former official in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, seems to think so. In a December 2017 Atlantic article he said federal lawmakers rarely act unless there is a crisis or unless, “the government is on the verge of defaulting on its debt or shutting down.” The problem is that when they use deadlines to force action “it’s not the careful debate of individual policies, but rather ‘omnibus legislation’—a giant log-roll that pulls all these pent-up policy demands into one legislative spasm that includes enough to make both sides happy.” Baer this scenario is “what we saw throughout the Obama presidency” and predicted, “it’s what we will see in the Trump presidency.”
He was right, and unless significant historical precedent is broken, it’s what we’re likely to see during the Biden administration as well.