What Are the Odds of a Fiscal Train Wreck?

September 25, 2015 

Following the surprise announcement by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that he will resign at the end of next month, lawmakers threatening a government shutdown agreed to a funding proposal to keep the government running – for now.

“The commitment has been made that there will be no shutdown,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.).

House and Senate leaders now seem poised to agree on a “clean” temporary continuing resolution (CR) next week that would keep the government running until Dec. 11. It would simply continue funding at current-year levels, with no controversial amendments.

But the short-term CR is only the tip of the political iceberg looming ahead.

To start with, no one knows if the post-Boehner House leadership will take an even harder line on budget issues.

In the Senate, Republicans still have differences over the way forward. Some think there could be another short- or long-term CR after Dec. 11. But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he won’t vote for any more continuing resolutions because that would hurt national defense.

Behind the scenes, there is talk of a “grand bargain” to raise budget caps and end sequestration, which has been a major sore spot for the entire government, especially defense, since 2011. Sequestration prevents responsible planning and budgeting. But any grand bargain also will be highly controversial, and the roiling of House leadership only adds to the uncertainty.

If that weren’t enough, Congress must act on several more contentious bills before Christmas, including:

  • The annual defense bill
  • A massive highway bill to make emergency infrastructure improvements
  • A bill to extend important expiring tax breaks
  • Legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling and avoid national default

The key question:  Can Congress overcome politics long enough to avoid a fiscal train wreck in December?