An inability to reach agreement on federal budget priorities resulted in a partial government shutdown to mark the start of the year 2019. The current shutdown occurred because of an inability to reach agreement on how much should be spent and for what purposes to increase security measures along the nation’s southern border with Mexico. This 21st stoppage in the past 43 years conjures up thoughts about how efforts to produce a budget each fiscal year can assume qualities of an operatic nature. As an illustration, divas and divos from both major political parties are accustomed each year to performing dramatic roles involving the equivalent of singing enthusiastic arias that reflect their distress at pet projects being denied adequate funding.
History shines some light on the nature of the basic problem. Only on four occasions since 1977 has Congress been able to pass all 12 appropriations bills on time before a new fiscal year begins on October 1. Another 16 years have been characterized by an inability to pass a single bill on time. The usual remedy is to enact short-term continuing resolutions (CRs) to enable the government to continue operating, but as the present situation exemplifies, even that approach has not been possible on 21 different occasions.
It also is worth acknowledging that squabbles over the federal budget are restricted to only one-fourth of total spending. Referred to as discretionary expenditures, amounts have to be debated and agreed upon for purposes, such as aid to education, the military, National Institutes of Health, and the provision of agricultural subsidies. The remaining three-fourths of the budget essentially is on automatic pilot where spending is allocated among major entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare. Once individuals qualify to become recipients, their benefits must be paid as regularly as clockwork. Given the steady numerical and proportional growth in the segment of the population age 65 and older, the provision of adequate support for such programs will continue to pose significant future challenges.
Apart from funding, individual members of Congress either singly or in combination will introduce a large number of bills in 2019. Committees and subcommittees will conduct hearings and also carry out oversight activities of the executive branch. The educational community has been waiting patiently since 2013 for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). This major piece of legislation that became law in 1965 last was reauthorized in 2008. Whether agreement can be reached on producing a reauthorization this year remains to be seen.
Both chambers are off to a quick start proposing other legislative action.
S.3—stabilize the individual insurance market, make insurance coverage more affordable, lower prescription drug prices, and improve Medicaid.
S.12—improve access to health care through expanded health savings accounts.
H.R. 64—intensify stem cell research showing evidence of substantial clinical benefit to patients, and for other purposes.
H.R. 83—repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.
Now that Democrats are the majority in the House of Representatives, considerable interest is being expressed in moving toward a single payer system. Expanding Medicare eligibility to a wider segment of the U.S. population would be a step in that direction.
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