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Budget In Action (er, “Inaction”?) July 26, 2010

Posted by Rebecca Williams in Analysis.
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Congress only has 10 business days before its members take a 6-week summer recess to return to their home districts and reconnect with voters.  Congress is then back in session on September 13, with only two weeks before the end of the fiscal year and a lot of pressure to get back to their districts for final campaigning in advance of mid-term elections.

There is a lot to do in this limited time and plenty of opportunity for politics to interfere, as members consider how votes will influence the election and what decisions may be best put off for the 112th Congress. The Elena Kagan confirmation is a must-do, as is the Defense Authorization bill.  Immigration, climate, and additional stimulus are likely to be skipped as too controversial while Democratic leaders may push for debate on ending Bush-era tax cuts for wealthiest Americans.

Congress must also deal with the 13 appropriations bills, as the days of government shutdowns while Congress and the White House battle over budgets are over.  The pending FY2010 emergency supplemental continues to hit a variety of political speed bumps that have made it increasingly difficult to pass before the summer recess.  Few expect any FY2011 appropriations bills to be passed before Election Day so the next fiscal year will likely begin with a Continuing Resolution (CR).

CRs are a symptom of a breakdown in process.  Appropriations bills are rarely passed by October 1st, the beginning of the fiscal year, and therefore CRs are used to keep the government operating in the absence of regular appropriations bills.  This year’s CR is especially vulnerable to perception.  Policy makers may extend the CR’s expiration date depending on who they think may win in November. Others will be anticipating how the last two years of the Obama Administration will play out before the 2012 elections, jockeying for floor time that would either bolster or undermine the opposition.

All this adds up to budget delays.  CRs generally don’t allow government agencies to begin any new programs or procurements. Short-term CRs make it especially difficult to plan for the upcoming year, essentially keeping government agencies in limbo.

Equally as important, the appropriations process has slowed down, in part, because appropriations bills have become the context for debates on policy.  Ideally, policy debates would take place in the consideration of authorizing legislation.  However, the authorization process results in very few bills enacted, as policy debates have become more politicized and harder to resolve.

The result is that policy agreements have not been reached and the appropriations bills have become a forum for the policy debates continue, instead of assuming they are resolved at the authorizing stage.  It also means that the tough hearings and airing of issues in many committees are simply theater and do not provide oversight or force accountability because they do not do much more than discomfit a few officials.

Many of the regular appropriations bills have thus been packed into large, omnibus appropriations bills, which must be passed or the government shuts down.  In addition, Congress has sometimes included supplemental appropriations in these CRs, further complicating and slowing the budgetary process.

With the lack of action on budget resolutions and no real debate on the overall contours of fiscal policy, tax policy, and addressing the debt/deficit in the context of America’s responsibilities aboard and at home, Congress is delaying its most basic role defined by the U.S. Constitution: appropriations made by law.

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