Congress averts another crisis, and lurches toward the next

WASHINGTON–Lawmakers will limp back to Washington next week, bruised by another barely-averted government shutdown crisis and battered by sinking public approval ratings.

But while many lawmakers agree that the latest fiscal fight was “embarrassing,” as one senator put it, it’s not clear this Congress can find any other way of doing business.

The most recent showdown was essentially over a tiny sliver of money–a $1.6 billion cut to the $1 trillion-plus federal budget. But that was enough to spark a standoff that threatened to deprive disaster victims of desperately needed federal assistance, including food and shelter for people devastated by Tropical Storm Irene.

“It doesn’t bode very well for serious policy-making,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

It doesn’t even bode well for the basics, such as finalizing annual spending bills to fund the federal government for the rest of fiscal year 2012.

The agreement hashed out this week, which still awaits final approval from the House, would give the Federal Emergency Management Agency $2.65 billion to replenish its Disaster Relief Fund, which is almost empty. It would also provide enough funding to keep federal government running until Nov. 18, temporarily avoiding a shutdown as the 2012 fiscal year begins this Saturday, Oct. 1.

It was a short-term fix, as lawmakers lurch from one shutdown crisis to the next. Until Monday evening, Congress stood on the precipice of its third fiscal standoff in six months: First came April’s last-minute funding deal to close out fiscal year 2011, less than two hours before a government closure; next was this summer’s bitter debate over raising the debt ceiling; and finally this week’s impasse.

When lawmakers first returned to Washington after a long August recess, it seemed as if there was a new desire to avoid such brinksmanship. House Republicans quickly pushed through clean, if temporary, extensions of federal aviation and highway funding bills, and Senate Democrats approved those bills easily.

“It seemed to be me there was some sort of recalibration on the part of Republicans,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “But then all of a sudden it turned.” Now, he said, Congress is “reaching new levels” of legislative hi-jinks.

Congress now faces a series of fiscal and policy deadlines in the coming months–and thus probably more political cliffhangers. For starters, the stop-gap funding measure approved by the Senate on Monday only lasts until Nov. 18. So Congress will have to come to a longer-term agreement on financing everything from defense to education programs before then.

West said the dynamics for gridlock are firmly established, with Tea Party Republicans taking a hard-line on spending and Democrats eager for a fight to protect cherished programs. So while House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, holds the majority’s gavel, he often doesn’t control the legislative script.

“Speaker Boehner has a huge challenge navigating his own caucus,” West said, referring to the Tea Party faction that often bucks the leadership on spending and other votes. And Democrats have no incentive to come to his rescue by voting in favor of GOP bills and helping Boehner make up for Republican defections.

The Senate is even more unwieldy. It’s nominally controlled by Democrats, but they don’t have a 60-vote majority to break filibusters in a chamber where one senator can block almost any bill.

With the 2012 elections drawing closer, West predicted that Congress won’t even be able to agree on a full-fledged 2012 spending plan.

“We’re probably going to have a series of continuing resolutions over the course of the next year,” he said, referring to the stop-gap measures lawmakers pass to extend current federal funding levels for days or weeks at a time. “These little skirmishes will continue as long as there are political points to be made.”

And there’s almost sure to be another fight over disaster aid. The Senate’s $2.65 billion package to refill FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund is unlikely to last through fiscal year 2012. The White House requested $4.6 billion for 2012-and that was before Irene hit the East Coast. Senate Democrats have said as much as $6.4 billion is needed to deal with recent disasters and to clear FEMA’s backlog, which includes recovery projects dating back to Hurricane Katrina. The agency currently has $450 million in projects on hold.

Courtney, whose district was hard hit by Irene, said the $2.65 billion “seems like an awfully low number.” Given the pace at which FEMA is doling out assistance, with disaster declarations in almost every state, Courtney said, “it’s almost inevitable that we’re going to be revisiting that.”

He said he was optimistic that for the disaster aid at least, there wouldn’t be the same level of take-it-to-the-edge gamesmanship. But as for the rest of Congress’s to-do list, he wasn’t as certain.

“It would be nice if we could get some regular order and do spending bills the way we’re supposed to,” he said, noting that it’s extremely disruptive for federal agencies and state officials to deal with the repeated threats of a lapse in federal funding. But that just may be the M.O. for the 112th Congress.