Latest News Out of Washington, D.C.
January 11, 2019
Government Shutdown Persists as Spending Talks Falter
As the partial federal government shutdown stretched into its 20th day, budget negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders remain stalled, with neither side showing any signs of compromise. In an effort to sway public opinion, President Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office on January 8, describing a humanitarian and security crisis along the southern border that could only be solved by construction of a physical wall. Specifically, Trump has requested that Congress provide $5.7 billion for a concrete or steel barrier. While the president stopped short of declaring a national emergency, he has not ruled out the possibility of doing so should the spending talks continue to drag on.
In a televised response to the president’s address, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) rejected Trump’s description of a crisis on the border and instead urged the president to end the shutdown. The same dynamics emerged in a meeting between congressional leaders and President Trump on January 9. Notably, if the standoff continues into the weekend, this will be the longest government shutdown in modern U.S. history.
Despite the border wall standoff, the House this week is on pace to approve a series of individual fiscal year 2018 funding measures (Financial Services; Agriculture; Interior-Environment; Transportation-Housing and Urban Development) to reopen parts of the government one-by-one. The four measures are based on legislation approved by the Senate in the previous Congress and also were part of a minibus appropriations package (HR 21) that the House approved last week.
In a Statement of Administration Policy issued by the White House, the president has indicated that he will veto any appropriations measure that reaches his desk, unless there is a broader deal on border security. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refused to schedule floor time on legislation that the president does not support.
To keep the public from feeling the consequences of a prolonged shutdown, the administration has taken a series of unprecedented and perhaps legally debatable steps to continue certain government operations. For example, the president has ordered national parks to remain open, despite nearly all National Park Service employees being furloughed. Furthermore, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has directed parks to use all funds collected from visitor fees to address services, such as trash collection and road maintenance.
In addition, and of particular importance to counties, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent a memorandum to states this week announcing that it had found a way to continue funding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/CalFresh through February. It was initially reported that USDA would only have enough in reserves to pay benefits for all of January and part of February. To ensure that February benefits are received, states must request an issuance of benefits by January 20. As of this writing, the State is working counties and Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) contractors on a plan to distribute SNAP benefits by the deadline. In addition, USDA has indicated that it will work with each state individually to execute the plan.
The Department also announced that it had sufficient funds for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program through February. Similarly, school meals programs will be covered through March.
For a complete look at the contingency plans of shuttered federal departments and agencies, please click here.
In other news, President Trump on January 9 threatened to halt the flow of federal emergency relief funds for California wildfires unless state officials change their forest management practices. Members of the California congressional delegation – including Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as several Republican representatives – were quick to criticize the president for politicizing disaster assistance. While it remains unclear whether the White House plans to follow through on withholding disaster funds, legal scholars have questioned whether the president has the authority to deny aid from areas that are currently under a disaster declaration.
On a related matter, House appropriators are currently drafting a disaster-aid package that could be considered by the chamber in the coming weeks. The funding would provide additional federal support for victims of recent wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters. The supplemental funding is expected to be more than the $7.8 billion in disaster aid that was approved by the House at the end of 2018. It should be noted that the House-approved funding was attached to a short-term continuing resolution that also included $5.7 billion for border security. That package ultimately stalled in the Senate.