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A Looming Government Shutdown | An Important Week for Biden

President Joe Biden walks through the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, on his way to deliver remarks on COVID-19. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Last updated on October 23, 2021

This week will be one of the most important and defining weeks for not just the Biden administration, but the Democratic Party going into the 2022 midterm elections. There are three important agenda items that both chambers of Congress have to compromise on before the week is over or risk a government shutdown, a catastrophic debt default, and the termination of a once-bipartisan infrastructure bill.

If the government were to shut down, hundreds of thousands of federal employees will be furloughed during a global pandemic. The funding for most federal agencies will expire by Thursday, and their respective functions will grind to a halt. 

According to William Hoagland from the Bipartisan Policy Center, three in five workers out of nearly 2.1 million federal employees will stop working, meaning the Center for Disease Control will potentially furlough 62% of their employees. However, a government shutdown does not mean a complete shutdown of all government services or programs. The Pentagon will remain operational, social security will continue sending pension checks, and medicare programs will still run during a government shutdown. Other essential services like law enforcement, firefighting, border protection, and air traffic control will be funded despite a shutdown. 

According to the White House Budget Office, numerous federal agencies began drafting plans in case of a government shutdown. 

If Democrats and Republicans cannot compromise on the proposed spending bill before Thursday, the government will shut down for the second time in the past three years. 

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen informed Congress that, in the event of a government shutdown, the Treasury Department will not be able to pay for the government’s bills in October.

On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged that the government will not shut down, citing a short-term spending patch with bipartisan support. 

In addition to the government shutdown, Congress also faces an immensely partisan fight over raising or suspending the debt ceiling. Democrats have proposed to either raise or suspend the debt ceiling, while Republicans are unwilling to vote for the proposed measure given the Democrat’s propensity to spend exorbitant amounts of money. This propensity includes, although not exclusively, the 1.9 trillion dollar COVID-19 relief bill passed in January 2021 and the now proposed 3.5 trillion dollar spending bill that consists of tax increases for social and climate programs. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, “A vote to raise the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending. Instead, it essentially allows the Treasury Department to raise money to pay for expenses the government has already authorized.”

The Democrats criticized Republican opposition to raising or suspending the debt ceiling, but the Democrats have every power to raise or suspend the debt ceiling without Republican support. Until now, the Democrats have proposed to raise the debt ceiling as a stand-alone bill, but they can amend the 3.5 trillion dollar budget package to include their debt ceiling policy, which can be passed by a simple majority in the Senate. 

However, since Democrats are significantly bifurcated between moderates and progressives, the debt ceiling policy, as well as the overall 3.5 trillion dollar budget package, rests on centrists Democratic congressmen to vote with their party. Also, because amending the budget package requires time, it is unclear whether Democrats can raise the debt ceiling before a default. 

“The U.S. economy could plunge into another recession this fall if Congress fails to lift the debt ceiling and the nation is unable to pay its obligations, according to an analysis by Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi. The fallout would wipe out as many as 6 million jobs and erase $15 trillion in household wealth, he estimated in a report.”

Lastly, the infrastructure bill hangs in the balance. Last August, Senate Democrats passed a 1 trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill with 19 Republican senators. The bill is set to be voted on Thursday.

The infrastructure bill may not pass in the House because the Progressive Congressional Caucus stated that nearly half of their coalition of 100 congressmen will not vote for the infrastructure bill if the 3.5 trillion dollar budget package is not passed. 

While the debt ceiling issue is certainly a partisan dispute between Democrats and Republicans, the more notable fight is between centrist and progressive Democrats in both chambers of Congress.

This week will serve as a testimony to President Biden’s domestic agenda and his leadership in whipping votes among the radicals in his party. The progressive caucus has proven themselves to be a formidable force in defying the Democratic leadership, showing that Pelosi and Schumer cannot control their respective caucuses with razor-thin majorities. 

Senator Sanders, arguably the most socially and fiscally liberal senator, said earlier that he will not budge on the 3.5 trillion dollar price tag because, according to him, he has already comprised enough to lower the price from over 6 trillion dollars. If any Democrat were to take that price tag of 6 trillion dollars and showed it to Pelosi or Schumer two decades ago, they would have dismissed it as radical, impractical, irresponsible, and detrimental. Now, they support it to advance a massive government centralization in response to social and climate issues. Because inflation has hit a 13-year-high, and our debt is increasingly surpassing our annual GDP, passing a 6 trillion dollar budget package would cement a Democratic defeat in 2022. 

For his part, Biden must show that he controls the party. Astonishly, self-proclaimed socialists like Sanders and progressive congressmen are currently holding a bipartisan infrastructure bill hostage until their wishlist of tax and social spending increases are passed. 

Currently, the Democrats, through the smallest possible majority, control both chambers of Congress, and if the government shuts down, the debt defaults, and a bipartisan infrastructure bill does not pass, then the American people will vote for new congressional leadership come 2022. 

Everything after the separator is the opinion of this article’s author.

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