Congress, the Budget, and Us

Point of View by Congress Project Director Don Wolfensberger, Centerpoint, May 2011

May 05, 2011

One of the unique advantages of working at the Woodrow Wilson Center is that you are literally never far from the political action in our nation's capital. That's exactly what Pat Moynihan had in mind back when he was a White House staffer in the 1960s and he conspired to create a living memorial to our country's 28th president just off Pennsylvania Avenue. We're three blocks from the White House and 13 blocks from Capitol Hill.

In the recent contretemps over funding the federal government this year, the Wilson Center found itself in the same position as scores of other government departments and agencies in our neighborhood (though we're only one-third federally funded). Would we have to close down at least part of our operations and how would that affect the ongoing research and programming that takes place here?

As director of the Congress Project, I received daily questions from scholars and staff as to what the chances were the government would close down. Although I had no special inside information, I would give my best guesstimates based on which side of the bed the negotiators seemed to have gotten out of on that particular day. Then I would qualify my guess by admitting: "Your guess is as good as mine." I had been through enough similar situations during my 28 years as a staffer on the Hill to know the prospects of a shutdown were real and the consequences could be devastating.

As it happened, I was scheduled to take a group of about 20 of our international fellows to Congress the day before one of the funding deadlines and watch the House debates from the visitors' galleries. We were fortunate to see one of the key debates on yet another resolution to keep the government open, and the scholars heard firsthand the blame games being played by both sides as to who was responsible for the fiscal mess.

A day later, cooler heads prevailed in private negotiations, and the final agreement was announced at the 11th hour. Our scholars had been eyewitnesses to a small piece of our country's zany budgetary history.

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