The budget impasse leaves the government on autopilot and at risk
Just last year, President Biden stood on the west front of the U.S. Capitol and was sworn into office. His inauguration was seen by many as an opportunity to move beyond the contentious and often ineffective governance of the previous four years and return to competent governance that is responsive to the American people, even as high levels of acrimony and partisan polarization remain.
Unfortunately, more than one year after Biden took office that commitment is in peril as the federal government continues to operate with the previous president’s budget, one that does not reflect the priorities the public voted for or that is responsive to a dynamic and changing environment.
The government cannot function optimally on autopilot. This matters for a number of reasons, including responding to the ever-evolving and all-encompassing COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring prudent oversight of the massive infrastructure bill that holds the promise of bringing transformative change to communities all across the nation if properly administered, assuring the nation’s security and military preparedness in the face of a changing threat environment and a hollowed-out diplomatic corps.
Recently, officials from the Defense Department raised concerns that the budget impasse threatens military preparedness due to uncertainty over retention and recruitment. News reports about the Internal Revenue Service also highlight challenges to the most basic responsibilities of government. Personnel issues, exacerbated by COVID, have led to weak enforcement and lost revenue, growing tax avoidance and a severe lack of responsiveness by IRS agents to tax filers.
While the prior administration did not ultimately succeed in cutting the number of federal employees across the board, cuts to specific agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, make it more difficult to respond to the pandemic, as well as the ongoing overdose epidemic.
The budget impasse threatens the nation’s ability to respond to our considerable public health issues. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to illustrate both the risks to the health of the public and also highlights the price we are paying for decades of neglect of our national public health system. The U.S. positions itself as the leading nation in terms of investing in health promotion, yet the pandemic has illustrated the many weaknesses. Whereas our investments in biomedical research still lead the world, we risk losing our preeminence and not leading in the technologies and innovations of the future. COVID-19 has shown the importance of disease surveillance to identify and monitor emerging variants, yet even with new investments, we lag far behind many other nations.
One of the surprising and important health accomplishments of the prior administration was its commitment to ending the domestic HIV epidemic by 2030. This was always a stretch goal, and even while Congress invested significant new funds in responding to the domestic HIV epidemic, these funding levels never matched the last administration’s own projections of need. This initiative enjoys bipartisan support, yet without a full-year budget, funding to end the HIV epidemic will be flat and will not provide for the $267 million increase that Biden is requesting. Like many other issues, HIV prevention and care has been underfunded, COVID-19 has likely set back our efforts, and these increases are needed to maintain and accelerate our progress.
To be sure, this is not the first time a continuing resolution has kept the federal government funded. The issue of congressional polarization and the inability to pass a budget has been highlighted repeatedly over the past several years. But today, the broken process has more serious repercussions given the experience of the past four years and the threats to the basic fiber of our government.
The COVID pandemic, overdose deaths, the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and military preparedness are just some of the areas of risk given our current budget impasse. Further, as we get closer to a presidential election in 2024, the prospects grow dimmer for the passage of a budget that reflects this administration’s priorities and responds to current challenges.
The swearing-in of a new president was just the first step to undoing the harms of the previous administration. Passing a budget for 2022 is critically important as we seek to rebuild not only the nation’s infrastructure from top to bottom, but also restore faith that our government can respond to the needs of Americans.
Regina LaBelle, JD, and Jeffrey S. Crowley, MPH, are initiative directors at The O’Neill Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. Both served in the Obama administration in the Executive Office of the president. Most recently, LaBelle served as acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Biden administration.