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New Political Dynamic Creates Uncertainty for Prognosticators

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  • February 15, 2011
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San Antonio — Passing the essential spending bills needed to keep the federal government running may be beyond the capabilities of the 112th Congress, but watching the drama unfold as the House Republican leadership gives way to the newly ascendant tea party freshmen is sure to be entertaining, according to a panel of inside-the-beltway experts at the ADC 2011 Winter Forum kickoff super session.

“This is really unprecedented,” George Schlossberg, a partner with Kutak Rock LLP, said of the rise of a third political caucus in Congress — the tea party — and its potential to prevent House leaders from reaching a compromise with the Senate over funding the government through the remainder of fiscal 2011. And as a result, a federal shutdown looms when the current continuing resolution funding federal operations runs out March 4.

In addition to contributing to the threat of a shutdown at any point, Congress’ failure to pass spending bills for FY 2011 also could cause the government to run out of operating funds before the end of the fiscal year simply because agency officials misjudge the full-year rate of spending they ultimately will be allocated, said Schlossberg, who also serves as ADC’s general counsel.

“I’m worried about disruptions in September,” he said.

The panelists initially planned to focus on the president’s FY 2012 budget, scheduled to be released the previous day, but instead found their session’s topic overtaken by more pressing legislative business.

Another new dynamic in the 112th Congress is the pledge of leadership in both houses to eliminate earmarks in spending bills. That ban is a particular concern to defense communities which in the past have relied on their congressional delegations to insert mission critical projects for neighboring installations into the military construction spending bill.

Many tools lawmakers relied on in the past are going away, noted Brian Moran, who had been legislative director to former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “I think it’s a different ballgame,” he said.

Two other panelists, though, agreed that Congress will find alternative mechanisms to direct spending to individual projects. David Berteau, senior advisor and director of the defense-industrial initiatives group for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he has witnessed signs that lawmakers were using “letter marks” and “phone marks,” in which members contact White House or agency officials to ask for designated projects to obtain funding rather than specifying the projects as part of spending measures.

For the first time at an ADC conference, audience members posed their questions via text messages. One attendee asked whether the approaching congressional debate over raising the federal government’s debt ceiling will lead Congress to tackle issues beyond discretionary spending involved in shrinking the deficit, such as entitlements.

“We are entering one of the seminal, national debates,” Schlossberg responded. Such a battle could be fought over a number of pending votes in Congress, including the continuing resolution and the 2012 budget, as well as the debt limit.

“[Or] it may take another election to determine,” he said.

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