By Matt Dennis, Senior Vice President
If one were to design in a laboratory specific legislation intended to encumber stable governing and inhibit responsible, bipartisan legislating, it would be hard to develop one as noxious as a rescissions package clawing back budget authority appropriated in the recently-enacted Omnibus Appropriations bill.
Such a gambit would pull the rug out from federal, state and local agencies, which are – quite reasonably – planning budgets based on the enacted law. How can any agency function with stability when it is whipsawed over the course of a year between budget cuts, two government shutdowns, a budget increase, and then the possibility of an unexpected reduction or elimination?
Even the introduction or debate about a rescissions package would force agencies to put on hold grants, contracts, hiring, capital investments, and other routine actions of a functional government. Whether Americans want a big government or small government, all Americans have an interest in an efficient government. Advancing a rescissions package would introduce new inefficiencies for purely political reasons.
This budget uncertainty at the federal, state and local level would also trickle down and have negative consequences for organizations that partner with government at all levels, as well as their employees and the populations they serve.
Corporations that depend on government contracts would be unable to hire and retain employees or invest in new services, equipment, or facilities while agencies’ budgets are on hold. Nonprofit organizations that rely on public grants to provide health care services, improve schools, and develop communities would be paralyzed, taking the hardest toll on those most in need of services.
Congress and the White House should be working to minimize uncertainty and support contractors and grantees, but advancing a rescissions package would do the exact opposite.
Beyond the substance, reneging on the Omnibus – which was enacted with an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress and the president’s signature – would have severe political consequences as well.
Given the near certainty that a rescissions package would target non-defense discretionary investments important to Democrats, it would render bipartisan deals in the future impossible – not just on appropriations, but on anything.
For example, why would any party in the minority consider earnest, bipartisan work on a farm bill, surface transportation reauthorization, or telecommunications reform when evidence suggests that as soon as the bill is enacted into law, the majority might attempt to reverse the agreements already made by both parties in Congress and the White House.
Advancing a rescissions package would cause further postponement of the 2019 appropriations process, which is already significantly late as a result of the six-month delay in enacting the 2018 Omnibus. Such a delay increases the likelihood of long-term Continuing Resolutions and brinkmanship over unrelated issues.
Republican appropriators in the House and Senate are largely cool to the idea because they understand that your word is your bond. They also know that if Democrats win the majority in the House and/or Senate in the upcoming election, the actions they take today could have serious repercussions tomorrow.
The 2018 Omnibus provided reason for guarded optimism that Congress and the White House are still capable of enacting responsible, bipartisan legislation that improves Americans’ lives. Advancing a substantively harmful and politically damaging rescissions package would be a counterpoint showing that optimism may have been misplaced.
Matt Dennis is a Senior Vice President at CRD Associates and former Appropriations Committee staff.