As school kids know, Congress has the responsibility to appropriate funds for the government to spend. It’s right there in Article 1 of the Constitution.
But this year — and let’s not mince words — lawmakers have fallen down on the job.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle haven’t passed up on any opportunities to play the game of kick-the-president-around-the-room, accusing him of “punting on this issue” despite the fact it is their damn job to craft this thing.
Theirs. Not his.
As has been tradition since the early 1900’s (yes, for the majority of our nation’s history the President didn’t even do that much) President Obama first proposed a budget for fiscal year 2011 on Feb. 1, 2010. That was 460 days ago.
If the process worked as designed, Congress would have taken a look at the president’s suggestions. Lawmakers on the budget committees would have set target spending levels, and appropriations committees would have hammered out spending plans to fit.
The result was supposed to be 12 separate appropriations bills. Congress would have voted on each, and moved them to the president’s desk. That’s all supposed to happen by Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year.
What we got was lots of talk, very little action.
Here’s what Congress did manage to do: The House produced two of 12 appropriations bills. The Senate has not voted on a single one. Lawmakers couldn’t even agree on their own legislative budget.
And those two House votes? They happened way back in July, when Democrats had huge majorities in the House and Senate, with Obama in the White House.
Why Democrats failed to take more action when they had the chance remains somewhat of a mystery. Remember, this is the same Congress that moved heaven and earth to enact landmark health care and Wall Street reform laws.
“Certainly the White House didn’t make the budget a priority,” Zelizer said. “And there are divisions in the Democratic Party, and especially in the Senate, that are significant. Not everyone is on the same page.”
In the absence of a full-year budget, lawmakers have instead passed six short-term spending bills called “continuing resolutions.” Designed to bridge short-term gaps in appropriations, Congress has approved one after another to keep the government running. Average length: 34 days.
The budget punt has implications for effective governance.
Continuing resolutions, with the exception of the most recent effort by Congress, freeze spending at the prior year’s levels.
This forces federal agencies into a whiplash inducing game of stop-and-go. Hiring is delayed, projects lose momentum, and agencies struggle to implement new legislation. Uncertainty is king, with agencies left to guess what their funding level for the year might be.
Add in the threat of imminent government shutdown coming around, on average, once a month, and it’s easy to see why agencies are praying the budget Merry-Go-Round stops soon.
As if to call attention to their own failure, both Republicans and Democrats have spent months issuing high-profile calls for a return to responsible budgeting.
But talk is cheap and they have made no progress.
Yesterday Senate overwhelmingly passed another stop-gap spending measure to prevent Friday’s threatened government shutdown, but increasing conservative opposition is making the task of negotiating a lasting deal deeply complicated for Republican leaders.
Congress now has another three-week reprieve before the country is again at risk of a halt in government services. Talks continue behind the scenes to reach a long-term budget solution, but things do not look good.
“This is a measure that indicates they [lawmakers] are not doing well,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Polarization in Congress is so extreme, and this reflects the difficulty lawmakers face in making decisions.”
The outcome of Thursday’s vote paralleled the mood earlier this week in the House, as conservative Republicans voted in opposition to the measure in greater numbers. Many Republicans are steadfast in their refusal to support the legislation unless it includes their policy priorities — defunding President Obama’s health care law, eliminating support for Planned Parenthood and others.
“This is a bad omen,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) before the vote. The resistance from conservatives, he said, makes a long-term deal between leaders more difficult. “An intense ideological tail continues to wag the dog,” Schumer added.
The Senate voted 87-13 to approve the stop-gap measure, funding the government through April 8, while cutting $6 billion. Nine Republicans voted against the bill, up from the five who opposed a previous short-term measure this month. Four Democrats also opposed it, the same number as earlier.
Cuts will continue at $2 billion a week, the level preferred by the GOP but opposed by many Democrats. The legislation was designed to appeal to Democrats by making the reductions in programs and services already identified by Obama for termination.
At the same time, it was not lost on lawmakers that among the cuts was elimination of $17 million for the development group called the International Fund for Ireland — a move occurring on St. Patrick’s Day, as Obama and congressional leaders were welcoming the Irish prime minister to an annual lunch.
In supporting the temporary measure, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), argued that, coupled with the reductions in a previously-approved stop-gap measure, Congress would be cutting $10 billion in five weeks — an unusually swift level of reductions.
“All in all, a good day’s work,” Kyl said during the debate.
The votes this week have made it increasingly clear that the divisions within the GOP ranks will set the stage for the ongoing talks on a long-term solution.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was able to pass the bill in his chamber this week only with the help of Democratic votes – which Democrats interpret to mean that will have greater influence over the final package.
Republicans have said Democrats and the White House have failed to offer alternative spending plans in negotiations.
With the two sides $50 billion apart, a middle ground could look similar to the estimated $30 billion in cuts Republican leaders first proposed, before their tea party activists and freshman rank-and-file pressed for more.
I for one hope this is indeed where we end up. Anyone going into this thinking they are going to get everything they want out of it is unrealistic, to say the least.
But such a compromise appears far off.
Once President Obama signs the latest measure, both sides indicated the next step is reach a long-term resolution to fund the government through the end of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Neither side wants another stop-gap measure.
Republicans leaders acknowledge the growing dissent within their ranks would make it increasingly difficult to pass another stopgap bill.
Democrats also have said they do not want more temporary proposals, which they said are creating economic uncertainty and leaving federal agencies unable to fill contracts, initiate programs or properly function.
“This is no way to run the country,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).