The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump prepares to unveil State of the Union, Congress struggles to do its job

Television crews set up their lights outside Congress in the hours before the federal government shutdown earlier in January.
Television crews set up their lights outside Congress in the hours before the federal government shutdown earlier in January. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

After the government shutdown ended earlier this month, congressional leaders expressed hope they could forge a deal that would address government spending over the next two years.

But on the eve of President Trump's first State of the Union address, lawmakers' expectations of a spending deal were quickly diminishing under pressure from Republicans and Democrats in both chambers.

Defense hawks were pushing for high military spending, but budget hawks were rebelling at the enormous figures, with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) calling them "grotesque." Leading Democrats were insisting on no bigger budget deal without an immigration pact. And House conservatives were beginning to grumble they couldn't support a deal that boosts the deficit, especially during a midterm election year.

"It is generally understood that the [domestic spending numbers] will be far too high," Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Monday.

While lawmakers could still find a way to break the impasse before the Feb. 8 shutdown deadline, odds were rising that Congress will once again punt and pass yet another short-term spending bill, which would be the sixth since Trump took office.

Congress's inability to handle its most basic constitutional task — managing the federal purse — not only dims prospects for many of Trump's ambitions but also threatens to deepen a spending stalemate that has had far-reaching ramifications through government and the economy.

The paralysis creates instability for the military and domestic agencies that provide critical services and feeds the public's growing suspicion toward the institutions of government in general.

It also makes the task of managing the nation's long-term finances more difficult. Congress now routinely ignores expectations that it pay for new spending or tax cuts — such as last month's $1.5 trillion tax cut — and there is no clear strategy to lift the federal cap on borrowing by a March deadline.

"Why do you shut the government down? Because you hadn't passed the appropriations bills," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. "If we do our jobs and in a diligent way, things seem to work out; they always have. But now, at times, we have chaos."

The State of the Union address begins an annual ritual where the president unveils an ambitious agenda, to be followed by a detailed budget which, in theory, provides a blueprint for Congress as lawmakers work through their own budgeting process and pass the 12 annual spending bills that fund all of government.

It's been well over a decade since that process functioned as it was intended to. It's become rare for even a single spending bill to be enacted before the start of the fiscal year in October.

"Budgeting is the most fundamental responsibility of governing. It sets the path for the country, and the broken budget process reflects so many pieces of what's broken now," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Ahead of the Feb. 8 deadline, lawmakers had hoped to agree on a two-year budget deal that would set spending levels across government.

The GOP is eyeing a roughly $80 billion increase for military spending. Domestic agencies would get an increase of around $63 billion, though Democrats are pushing for more. Unsettled is how much of the spending would be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. It also remains unclear that Democrats would sign off on a deal on the spending levels absent progress on the contentious question of protections for young immigrants.

Even if they can get to a spending deal that resolves the immediate issues, there seems to be little hope among lawmakers that they can overcome the hurdles and get the overall spending process back on track.

'$4 billion in a trash can'

The U.S. government will spend $4.1 trillion in 2018, and roughly 30 percent of that is supposed to be doled out by Congress.

When that doesn't happen as it's supposed to, the gridlocked spending process can't respond to the changing needs of the nation. Congress, for example, has yet to pass a disaster relief package for last year's devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Budget stalemates threaten economic growth by fueling uncertainty for the government and the countless private companies that rely on it.

Spending standoffs can affect lifesaving agencies and research programs with bipartisan support. Senate appropriators, for example, have signed off on a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health and $816 million toward the opioid crisis, but those and other spending changes negotiated on the committee level by the members with the most expertise cannot advance until the overall stalemate is resolved.

Military leaders have said the failed budget process has forced them to defer maintenance and training, and they have even linked it to accidents that have cost the lives of U.S. service members. Ships and other equipment sit idle because the military cannot make improvements, but the officials say money is often trapped in programs that don't need it.

"We have put $4 billion in a trash can, poured lighter fluid, and burned it," Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said in December. He said that money was wasted because it could not be reapportioned within the military. It could have been used to buy two new destroyers or a "squadron of F-35" jets, he said.

'It's pretty bad'

Lawmakers and political strategists point to a confluence of factors that they believe have made the problems worse.

Spending bills need to pass the House of Representatives with only a majority of votes, so political parties frequently ram bills through that chamber.

The Senate, meanwhile, needs 60 votes to pass a spending bill, a margin rarely achieved by one party on its own. So spending bills there tend to languish because there isn't bipartisan support.

"It's pretty bad," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), another Appropriations Committee member. "Some of what's happening is structural and a function of the times we're living in. We're in a different environment. The filibuster is used more aggressively, so I think doing each individual appropriations bill through regular order would be a home run. But I think that we should try to hit a few singles."

House GOP leaders often complain that the spending problems are a result of the slothlike Senate. But some House Republicans say their chamber retains some blame, as they fail to preemptively cut deals with Senate lawmakers and instead vote on spending bills they know won't become law.

"A lot of my colleagues are saying, 'We've done our work. We've passed our bills,' " said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), an Appropriations Committee leader who is retiring at the end of this year partly out of frustration with congressional inaction. "Well, we really haven't done our work. We've passed appropriations bills at a number that isn't realistic. That's where I get frustrated. . . . We have to negotiate with the Senate."

This wasn't always the case.

In January 2011, following a number of scandals tied to pet projects tucked into spending bills, President Barack Obama vowed to veto any spending bill that contained earmarks. This proved popular with many Americans but helped paralyze the budgeting process because lawmakers no longer had hometown projects in spending bills.

Congress has missed nearly every spending deadline since the earmark ban took effect.

"This is heresy to many senators, but I will tell you the loss of earmarks has meant the loss of investment in the legislative process," said former senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who was the chamber's Democratic leader before his defeat in 2004. "When we lost that, we lost one of the elements that leadership has to get things done."

At a recent White House meeting, Trump seemed to endorse bringing back earmarks, and a House committee took up the issue. But GOP leaders, wary of resuscitating a process that led to accusations of corruption and pork-barrel politics, have expressed reluctance.

Heather Long contributed to this report.