Next Up–Budget Politics

Steve Richer, DC correspondent

With all the recent news coverage of four hurricanes in the continental U.S. and the Caribbean, earthquakes in Mexico, wildfires in California, a possible nuclear confrontation with North Korea, various investigations, and endless tweeting and posturing between President Donald Trump and numerous political and public figures, we now come to the time to focus on what might become a battle royal over the federal budget.

In early September, Congress passed a continuing resolution, which became Public Law 115-56, to fund the federal government essentially at current levels through December 8 to avoid any further debate during campaign season for the 2017 off-year elections.

Although very few of the Trump campaign initiatives—the wall on the US-Mexican border, the federal tax cuts, or the trillion-dollar infrastructure investment—were addressed by that short-term piece of mandatory legislation, some, if not all, of those issues, could be included in a more comprehensive budget bill required less than two months from now.

The dynamics of Congress, however, make a bipartisan effort almost mandatory to pass any federal budget.  Because several federal budget elements, continued funding for healthcare (since the Affordable Care Act has not been repealed), funding of various public agencies providing social services, and numerous other programs, are opposed by the highly conservative House Freedom Caucus, it is critical to have a combination of votes from more moderate Republicans and a majority of Democrats to continue federal funding for these areas.  That was the case in the latter years of the Obama Administration and now, in the first continuing resolution of the Trump Administration.

However, recurrence of this collective effort to fund the federal government now seems to be on more shaky ground.

To fuel the polarization, President Trump is backing off his earlier commitment to continue Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program allowing a pathway for the children of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States and earn citizenship, which had seemingly been successfully negotiated between President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.  Secondly, President Trump is insisting that the border wall with Mexico and a $1.6 billion appropriation to start to build it be included in the next budget bill.  A separate bill with that funding is currently stalled in the Senate.

Both these items–the border wall and the possible change of heart on DACA–are non-starters with the Democrats, raising the chance of a government shutdown, due to no funding authority only two months out.  This would be a role reversal of the 2013 shutdown, when conservative Republicans pressed for some of their priorities to be included in the budget and, when failing to do so, stopped the appropriations altogether.

Inbound operators will recall the calamity resulting from the closure of the national parks and other key government services, including a slowdown in visa processing, which impacted the travel sector.  Key industry leaders, including International Inbound Travel Association Executive Director Lisa Simon, then with NTA, testified at House and Senate hearings on what the government closure did to tour business.

IITA is already on record to support funding to modernize airports through an increase in the Passenger Facility Charge, which has been included in the Senate Transportation Appropriations Bill, but not in the House version.

This matter and others will be part of the negotiations over the next two months to determine how funding can move forward and what can be included in a bill that would gain a majority in both houses of Congress.  As already cited, the dynamics are on thin ice, as the Trump Administration is toying with ideas that will cost the support of the Congressional Democrats and therefore require any bill to be even more conservative to pass with only Republican support.

Such a scenario would likely result in:  little, if any, funding for the massive Trump infrastructure proposal, including an upgrade to the nation’s airports; deeper cuts to the national parks and other public lands; and a continuation of understaffing of the State Department and its ability to process visas promptly, as just some of the results.

Inbound operators will not want to see these budget impacts, but rather will want funding for infrastructure, a limit to cuts for national park operations and programming, and better processing of visas.  Unfortunately, these items might get caught up in the debate over the border wall and DACA.

At this point, it is best to advocate for those items inbound operators support and steer clear of the “inside the ballpark” negotiations between the Trump Administration and Congress. But being aware of what is happening is still important, so we should stay vigilant, informed, and ready to act in the next two months, if required.