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Senator Lankford Releases Podcast on Solution to End Government Shutdowns

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WASHINGTON, DC – The Office of Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today released an episode of Lankford’s podcast, The Breakdown with James Lankford. Lankford discusses the budget that must be agreed upon by the House, Senate, and White House; what must happen to avoid another government shutdown; and the next steps necessary to pass the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act.

Lankford and Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) introduced the Prevent Government Shutdowns Act, a bipartisan Senate proposal to address the threat of government shutdowns, earlier this year. The bill passed out of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in June.

Last year Lankford served on the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, where he worked to develop reforms to our federal budget and spending processes. Lankford also serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senate Finance Committee and is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management. 


Senator Lankford: This is Senator James Lankford from Oklahoma coming back to you with another round of The Breakdown. We try to take a complicated issue that people hear in the news and break it down into its essential elements. That way when you see people at work or chatting with folks at church or talking to your neighbor over the fence, when you hear them say one of the terms you don’t just have to nod your head and say, ‘Yep, I know what they means.’ You actually will know what they means and you can tell them. So we try to take some of the tough issues and certainly one of the tough issues we’re facing right now is budgeting. What’s happening to the federal government in budgeting and government shutdowns and continuing resolutions. All these things about caps deals. There’s all these terms that get thrown around in the media and most folks nod their head and think yep—I’ve got it, but they really don’t. We’re hoping by the end of The Breakdown today that you’ll have some of the details and we can get a chance to be able to interact and talk about how we solve this. With me today at The Breakdown is my senior policy advisor, his name is Kevin. He hails from Durant, Oklahoma. You’ve been on The Breakdown before. So glad you’re back again, Kevin.

Kevin: I have. Thank you, sir. This is my second time.

Lankford: Well you’re a long-term veteran on it. You’ve actually been on our team from the very beginning. What I affectionately call a franchised player on the team, on our staff. You’ve been an exceptionally valuable asset and the pride of Durant, Oklahoma. Getting a chance to be able to work on some of the toughest issues that we face as a nation. Glad you’re here. So thanks for being a part of the conversation and what you do every week as well. So if you’re listening to The Breakdown, obviously, and you are. So I don’t know why I would say if you’re listening, because clearly, you are listening. But I just want to be able to remind folks they can also subscribe to The Breakdown on Spotify, iTunes, SoundCloud, or you can track all of our stuff on social media @SenatorLankford and get all the details.

So let’s jump into all the information on this. We’re in the middle of a budget conversation, it’s the summertime and in the summertime we are supposed to be in the middle of what’s called ‘appropriation bills.’ So just to back this up, we’re the only country in the world that has a three-stage process to be able to move through budgeting. We have a budget process which is like a big picture, imagine someone saying, ‘We want to do certain things and we’re gonna set up big number for it,’ but there’s no details to it. We have what’s called ‘authorizing bills’ that actually talk through exactly the policy side of what it would be and they authorize the spending, but it’s not the actual spending. And the last stage of this is the ‘appropriation bill.’ There’s 12 of those appropriation bills, they take all the spending in the federal government that’s on what’s called the ‘discretionary side.’ They break it all up into these 12 different, individual bills and each of those have to pass. So when people talk about ‘pass a budget,’ some people mean that’s the whole thing, that’s actually the appropriations bill. Some people would say that’s just the first stage for the budgeting items. But it’s a process that we go through that’s highly, highly partisan through the whole part of it. Because everybody’s got opinions on how federal dollars should be spent. But its also incredibly difficult and it is a long process. I jokingly say to folks, most families go through something like this on their own, they’re just not as structured. Like someone would say sitting around at some point at Thanksgiving and they would say in their family, ‘Hey should we do a family vacation next year?’ People would say ‘Yeah, I think we should do a family vacation.’ It’s just kind of a general, ‘Yeah, we should do a family vacation next year.’ Well that would be like the budget process, kind of a big picture. The authorizing would be a step later on when the family would start saying, ‘What are we gonna go to the beach, gonna go to the mountains, gonna go to the state park, gonna go to fishing, gonna go to Disneyland, what are we gonna do?’ Then they kind of narrow down like, ‘Let’s go to a theme park, let’s do that as a family vacation. Maybe that’s Six Flags in Dallas, maybe that’s a Disney park, or maybe that’s Magic Mountain. We’re gonna try to go to a theme park.’ So that would be like the authorizing portion of it, and say, ‘Yeah we’re gonna do a family vacation, we decided the type of it.’ Then the appropriations would be like ‘No, this is the exact theme park we’re going to. This is how much we are gonna spend, this is how we’re gonna travel, so it gets down to a lot more details. We’re stuck right now, as a Congress, in the very first stage of this, the budgeting process of it, trying to get to the big number. The House, the Senate, and the White House all have to come to an agreement based on what is the big number in the budget portion of it, to technically use that term. That’s a long-term process. Kevin, this has been going on for quite a while at this point. How many years has this kind of process been a problem for us?

Kevin: So, really it started in 2011, its always been a little bit of an issue. But in 2011 we passed something called ‘The Budget Control Act,’ which set spending caps for ten years out. 

Lankford: Which worked, which actually did reduce spending.

Kevin: That’s right, that’s right. And unfortunately what’s happened over the last few years is that defense spending has been connected to what we call ‘domestic spending,’ on things like health care, education, housing. And so if you raise one, you really have to raise the other, and this is the core of the disagreement that we have now and the reason we can’t come to an agreement on the total topline spending.

Lankford: Yeah this whole concept that you hear people talk about and say, ‘Well let’s talk about defense spending,’ has to be the same amount as non-defense spending.

Kevin: Parity.

Lankford: That was not a conversation before the Obama Administration, this was never even discussed.

Kevin: Right. That’s new.

Lankford: Now that is the new ‘standard,’ for my Democratic colleagues to say, ‘Anytime you increase defense spending, whether it’s needed, whatever it may be, if you do anything for defense, you have to do just as much for every other area of government as you do for defense.’

Kevin: That’s exactly right. 

Lankford: That has certainly caused a problem because there are times that you’re gonna need things in defense and you may not need the same amount of things for the IRS, or you may not need the same things for different agencies that are out there, pick any one of them. To say I’m gonna treat, ‘all my children the same,’ doesn’t mean anything when you actually transition into the federal government to say, ‘Not everybody has the same needs at the same time.’

Kevin: Right

Lankford: So we should have some way to resolve it. So our challenge right now is trying to be able to work with the House of Representatives, our Senate body, and then also the White House and come to an agreement just on what the overall number is gonna be. Divided out what’s gonna be defense and what’s gonna be non-defense. Once we get past that, then what’s the next stage on that Kevin?

Kevin: So as soon as we come to a caps deal and set the topline.

Lankford: The caps deal is that, the caps deal is—the maximum amount that we are gonna spend.

Kevin: That’s right. The topline spending for the next two years, sort of the final two years of the Budget Control Act. So once we reach that agreement then we have to deal with what’s called ‘the debt ceiling,’ which is the total amount of obligations that we have. That’s projected to be breached at some point in September or October. So, we have to deal with that very, very soon. It’s likely that those two things will take a ride on the same vehicle. Then we actually have to pass spending bills for the next year, FY2020. And so those three things are really what we have coming up.

Lankford: So that’s the 12 appropriations bills that you’re talking about where you break it all up. Those 12 bills have to pass. Now if those 12 bills pass individually, which is the way they’re supposed to work, and they pass all on time, they all have to pass by October 1st because that is the end of the fiscal year. Our fiscal year is October 1st until September 30th. So they’ve gotta all be done by October 1st. Here’s the challenge people don’t know. This whole system of having a budget, authorizing bills, appropriating bills, this whole structure was created in 1974 right after Watergate. This structure has only worked four times since 1974, four times as it was designed. So I get people in Oklahoma all the time that say to me, ‘How come the budget’s not working again this year?’ It’s just this implication like this particular Congress is so messed up that it’s not working. It’s only worked four times ever, as it was designed since 1974. That’s why you and I and several other folks from other offices have started working on how do we fix the whole budget process. We’ve gotta fix the whole thing. That’s a different conversation for a different day. We’ve got a whole series of proposals, in fact, last year in our Federal Fumble book, we included a whole section on how to be able to fix the budget process to be able to make that better. One of the things that everyone deals with though as we get to the end of the fiscal year, let’s say we get to September 30th, what happens that day if an appropriation bill is not passed, or if any appropriation bills are not passed. 

Kevin: So, for the rest of the years that weren’t those four years that it worked, we are faced with a choice. We have to pass what’s called a ‘continuing resolution,’ which means we’re just spending as last year’s rates, that’s all that means. But no new policy can be implemented, no new contracting starts or anything like that, it’s just last year’s spending rates and that’s it, we continue that forward for a set time, whatever we deem necessary. Or, we shut down.

Lankford: Right, so really there’s just two options. You get to the end and appropriation bills are not done, you either have to vote for and pass a continuing resolution, what some people call a CR. You’ll hear that term, CR, thrown around all the time, like people know what that means, its continuing resolution. It is continuing the same level of spending that we had before, or you have a government shutdown. And again, that’s not a new thing. I’ve had some folks say, ‘these crazy government shutdowns lately.’ We’ve had 21 government shutdowns in the last 40 years, 21. People forget that Tip O’Neal shut the government down three times on Ronald Reagan when he was president. This has happened in almost every presidency since the 1974 time period. We have government shutdowns when we get to the end of the fiscal year and things aren’t resolved. Some are longer than others, in fact the one that happened earlier this year was the longest ever in the history of government shutdowns. The long and sordid history, I should say, of government shutdowns. But we get to that point of government shutdowns. We’ve raised a question to our colleagues, you’ve worked on the staff level talking to other staff, I’ve worked with the other members trying to figure out this simple thing, how do we take government shutdowns off the table?

Kevin: Right.

Lankford: Because when a government shutdown happens federal workers still will eventually get paid, but the contractors that work in the federal government, they don’t get paid, and it creates total chaos in those families. I mean for families not to get a pay check and it doesn’t help for people to say, ‘Well one day you’ll get paid, everything will get paid back.’ That just doesn’t help people. It’s crazy. People call an agency trying to get a permit, trying to be able to contact and get a passport, trying to be able to work on whatever it may be, and they’ll say, ‘I’m sorry we can’t do that right now, we’re half our staff. Half of the staff is on furlough because of the government shutdown and the other half is here for emergency measures only.’ While we still have police, and fire, and we still have law enforcement, federal law enforcement, still have our military working, and basic social security. All of those things basically still function in a shutdown, it’s crazy and chaotic. So, I believe, you believe, that we’ve gotta find a way to solve the government shutdown and this is not new. You and I have worked on this for years. We had a proposal several years ago where we’d said, ‘Okay let’s make it simple, let’s do a continuing resolution. If the budget doesn’t get resolved then we’ll start racking the number down, we’ll just reduce spending a little bit each month until we actually get to a decision here.’ Republicans all jumped on board and said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ The problem is, we never had a single Democrat that wanted to join that. You crazy Republicans will never ever do a budget again because all you want to do it cut spending. We actually want to be more strategic in spending. We’re not just trying to cut every single line in every single place. I don’t agree with where they’re coming from on that because we don’t just want to see across the board cuts to everything. There are areas of government that need additional spending, there are areas of government that need less spending. So I wanna be more strategic. But we couldn’t get a single Democrat on that and we tried that for several years. So then this conversation popped out about, let’s do no budget, no pay. Which really means no appropriations, no pay, but that’s a whole different issue. So if you get to the end of the fiscal year and appropriation bills are not done, then members of Congress won’t get paid. Well that sounds like a great idea except, I should introduce you to some of the people I work with. Because a large number of the people that serve in the Senate are multimillionaires. Their pay that comes in from their congressional salary is like a rounding error to them in their investment portfolio. They really don’t care, it doesn’t matter to them. What most Americans, myself included, most Americans our paycheck really does matter to us in trying to figure out how we’re gonna do the next month and how we’re gonna pay bills and all those kind of things, that’s normal. For most of the people that I work with, that’s not normal, their paycheck doesn’t matter. It’s really not an incentive to try to actually get people to force to action if you just don’t pay folks.

Kevin: Right, and I think you don’t want your congressional members making their choices on policy based on their pay. You want them making their choices based on the merits on the policy in front of them. Right?

Lankford: Right.

Kevin: And so by pitying wealthy members against those with more modest means, I think that’s just the wrong way to go, which is the reason we dropped that out in the latest version. 

Lankford: Yeah and I’ve tried to push back on some folks because it makes a great bumper sticker, the problem is I don’t think it really solves the problem, because it really doesn’t move people to action either. So we have a third option that we have worked on that has been really interesting because it’s gaining bipartisan support, which is a rare commodity around here, and it’s a simple principal, that you cannot leave until the work is done. So kind of walk us through where we are on it right now and I want to go through some of the details.

Kevin: The latest proposal which we’ve introduced with Senator Hassan got great bipartisan support.

Lankford: Right. Who is a Democratic Senator from New Hampshire. 

Kevin: That’s right. That’s right. And so we’ve kind of taken some of these ideas and married them together so we take the auto CR so that solves the shutdown threat as soon as we lapse on appropriations, the auto CR would kick in and we’re just spending at last year’s rates.

Lankford: Ok so let’s go back on that. September 30th comes, we don’t have all the bills passed for appropriation, now it’s October 1st, what you’re saying in the description that we have is October 1st comes, it looks exactly the same to the federal worker and to the American tax payer then it did on the 30th of September. 

Kevin: That’s exactly right.

Lankford: So it’s automatically a continuing resolution kicks in at last year’s amounts, so it’s basically a hold at last year’s amounts, but things are still being funded. Federal workers are still going to work. As far as they know everything is still functioning the same.

Kevin: That’s right. No shutdown.

Lankford: No shutdown has occurred across the federal government, but here’s the big shift. 

Kevin: So pairing with that we would set up a series of restrictions on actual Members of Congress and so those that have the responsibility to fund the government, this focuses the burden squarely on them. So we would say, ‘You are not going to adjourn for recess, you are not going to use your official funds for travel and that includes folks at the state as well for their staff, you’re going to be here every single day voting at noon on a mandatory quorum call,’ which is sort of just a procedural vote to keep members in town, and so that’s really the big three that we would put in place. And we would put that in with an auto CR and so force people to be in town and to come and actually make a decision on spending.

Lankford: Yeah and so here’s are simple idea in a nutshell: the federal worker is held harmless in this. They can keep working, they’re still continuing to get paid. The taxpayers are unaffected by it in that sense so things are still operating as they did last year, but if we haven’t made a decision in Washington, all the pressure’s on the people to make a decision in Washington. They can’t leave until the decision is made. Literally there’s no travel, no leaving DC until this is done. The pressure then becomes time, it’s not about money, it’s about time. No matter how much money you make everyone has the same precious commodity of time. 

Kevin: That’s exactly right.

Lankford: And it’s a limitation. So our pressure point is sure you can leave and go do the things in state. Do your international responsibilities, do the other things. When you get the first things done first. One of our first constitutional responsibilities is getting the budgeting done. That has to be done. And so we’re putting the pressure where the pressure should be, on the members and on their staff. You would be stuck in DC with me. You also couldn’t travel. My staff in state could not travel as well. Everyone would be locked down, including some of the staff that does the budgeting at the White House. They would also be locked down. They couldn’t travel either. We are all be in DC until we finish the negotiations. This past year during the government shutdown, it started right before Christmas and members left to go home for Christmas while we’re in a government shutdown. I was one of the very last members to leave DC in December because I kept pushing to find some way to be able to get us to negotiations. And literally the place was empty when I left in December and it was finally to the point where everyone was leaving and they are not coming back. My pressure was, if you want to be home for Christmas, if we’re still fighting this out in December or around Thanksgiving, if you want to go home, fine. Let’s get the budget issues resolved. We’re going to have a fight every single year on budget. We don’t agree. I want to spend a lot less than some of my colleagues want to be able to spend on things. We’re going to have disagreements on spending. Let’s have those disagreements and let’s keep the argument going until we solve it and get to the decision. Once we get to the decision we can pass that and we can resume the rest of our work that needs to be done. Because we have more work that needs to be done but that’s got to get done. But in the meantime, federal workers and their families and the American people should be held harmless.

Kevin: That’s right, and so this is the only bipartisan, legitimate effort to make this happen. So we have our work cut out for us in the next few weeks to finalize the language, pass this through the committee process.

Lankford: The second committee.

Kevin: The second committee. That’s right. We’ve worked this through one already.

Lankford: Yeah we’ve already finished one and we had an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote. Overwhelming.

Kevin: I think it was 10 to two.

Lankford: Yeah. So we had very strong response initially to this from both sides of the aisle. People saying, ‘That would actually work, that would actually get us to a point where we can make a decision.’ Its not a matter of punishing members of Congress, it’s just saying, ‘Stay until the work’s done, and then we can move on.’

Kevin: Yeah. Pretty simple concept overall. So we’ll be working on that over the next few weeks and working that through the process and hopefully get that resolved this year.

Lankford: So the big challenge that we have is still coming September 30th of this year and so here are the multiple tracks that are happening: you mentioned debt ceiling, that’s in conversation right now. We still have to get to the big number. The first big number and once we get to that agreement doing the twelve appropriations bills and at the same time, we’re trying to run this track to be able to stop government shutdowns. We’re hoping to get this done at the same time we do the rest of the budget and appropriation items to say, ‘Let’s resolve this.’ I’ve met with members of the White House staff, I’ve met with members that are in leadership in the House and in the Senate. Everyone is nodding their heads and saying, ‘That’s an idea that I think will work.’ We’re going to continue to work and see if we can’t get this resolved.

We have a lot of issues to be resolved on budgeting. Government shutdowns shouldn’t be on the table as one of the prime issues and one of the prime tools because at the end of the day, it doesn’t really help us, it in fact hurts us and so it cost more to do a government shutdown, it causes more chaos, it causes vulnerability in our security. We need to be able to resolve this at the end. So here we go. Over the next couple of weeks as ya’ll are watching for us, we’ll keep you up to date. If you’re on our e-newsletter that we send out every three to four weeks, we’ll give you updates on how the Government Shutdown Prevention Act is moving. We can send you the exact language on it if you are nerdy folks like us that want to actually go through all the exact legislative language and to see exactly what that looks like. We’d be glad to be able to send that out to you. If you’ve got ideas on how to be able to make it better, we’d be glad to be able to have your ideas, bring it on. That’s how a lot of this stuff happens. People start kicking around this idea, we think that’s a good idea and start to be able to put it in to legislative language and try to get it resolved. We’ve got this issue and a bunch more that we’re working through right now. I wish this was the only thing we were working on. We’re working on international policy, we’re working on lots of other areas on budgeting, immigration policy, education policy, environmental issues, energy issues, we’ve got a lot that’s moving right now, but we thought we’d cut out one slice that you’ll hear in the news a lot over the next three months, that is continuing resolutions, appropriations, and government shutdowns, and hopefully this helps explains some of those so when we get to September 30 of this year, people will know what all of those terms mean, but they will also know there is a way to be able to get this stuff done and be able to get it done on time. So thanks for joining us on The Breakdown. Kevin, thanks again for all your work and for the time to be able to be here on mic with me here today. Want more information on any of these things, just go to @SenatorLankford on social media. You can also go on our website at Lankford.Senate.Gov, or again, you can sign up and subscribe for our podcast that is on Spotify, iTunes, or on SoundCloud. I look forward to getting the chance to catch up with you again in the days ahead. 

You can subscribe to The Breakdown with James Lankford on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Spotify.