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Budgeting by Headlines Isn’t the Way to Run the Government

The House leadership’s piecemeal approach to temporarily fund politically sensitive programs — the third installment of which will take place in the House today — is no way to govern.  It’s a fig leaf, leaving large swaths of the federal government closed as the government shutdown reaches day four today.  The House should reject this approach.

Today’s episode will feature two bills — one to fund the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and one to fund the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

Over the last two days, the House has passed piecemeal measures to temporarily fund the national parks, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and veterans’ benefits; ensure that the National Guard and military reservists are paid; and allow the District of Columbia to use its own resources to fund public services.

Many of these bills were proposed after the media exposed the shutdown’s harmful impacts in one area or another.  For example, the NIH bill followed news stories explaining what policymakers should have already known: when NIH has no funding, it cannot accept new patients for treatment, including children enrolling in cancer treatment clinical trials.

WIC, too, is important.  It provides modest but critical nutrition assistance to vulnerable low-income pregnant, post-partum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and young children under the age of five.  And over the last couple of days, a spate of media stories have explained that if the shutdown lasts past October, states will start to run short of funds to provide WIC benefits.

CBPP has worked to ensure a strong and effective WIC program for nearly three decades.  Nevertheless, the House should reject this bill.  There remains some time, while low-income families continue to receive WIC benefits this month, to end the shutdown in its entirety — we hope sooner rather than later.

What is left out of the House’s laundry list of program areas worthy of re-opening?  Here are just a few examples:  safety inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; flu prevention and monitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; funding for nutrition programs for seniors, including home delivered meals and congregate meals at senior centers; non-emergency inspections of hazardous waste facilities, chemical facilities, and drinking water systems by the Environmental Protection Agency; the federal court system; the National Science Foundation; and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

All Americans have a stake in seeing the entire government reopen, including people who might be helped by one or more of the piecemeal bills.  To be sure, many low-income families need WIC or Head Start.  But, that’s not the only part of government they need up and running.  As colder weather approaches, for example, some will need assistance from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help pay for heat, while others need job training or help paying for after-school care so a parent can work.

And this isn’t just about federal programs.  Low-income families also need a strong economy — not one weakened by the shutdown’s toll on businesses and economic growth (or by the uncertainty surrounding the threat of default, let alone the potentially devastating effects if default were actually to occur).

Proposing a bill to fund WIC is rightly seen as a cynical attempt to make the House policies look humane, protecting vulnerable mothers and children.  But the policies the House is pursuing are destructive, shutting down critical agencies that deliver important public services and endangering a still-struggling economy — all in an effort to create “leverage” to undermine health reform’s promise of providing health insurance to millions of Americans, including to millions of low- and moderate-income people.