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‘Worst Ever’

Prior to enactment of the Budget Act of 1974, the federal fiscal year began on July 1. It got extended to Oct. 1 because Congress thought it couldn’t process appropriations bills in just six months — but could in nine months.

Guess what — almost every year, individual bills still haven’t been passed on time, and often not at all, with the government funded by monster omnibus appropriations bills or continuing resolutions merely extending the previous year’s funding.

The record is simply dismal. In the past 32 years, the 13 appropriations bills funding various departments of government have been passed and signed into law on time precisely three times, according to the Congressional Research Service, the last in 1997. In the 11 years since then, the average is 1.5 bills.

This is not a matter of little consequence. Federal departments, grantees, state and local governments, and ordinary citizens anticipating federal funds can’t plan their programs or investments when they don’t know if or when their money will come in. Congress’ failure causes damage to the American economy.

The fundamental cause is not procedural, according to Congress watchers such as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute (a Roll Call contributing writer) and Charles Konigsberg of the Concord Coalition. It’s political. Ornstein says, “Whether it’s one party versus the other or Congress versus the White House, it’s become like high-priced athletes playing contract chicken with team management. In this case, endgames are deeply destructive.”

And this year, Konigsberg says, “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen, watching the budget process since 1983.” The Democratic Congress and President Bush are $25 billion apart on domestic discretionary spending levels (out of $500 billion in total outlays) and Bush — after having vetoed no spending bills when Republicans were in charge of Congress — is threatening to veto every bill that tops his request.

The Democrats have decided to wait him out. Possibly two bills will be passed by Oct. 1, funding the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs Department. All 11 other bills will be held over until next year, with Democrats hoping that President Barack Obama will sign what Congress passes.

Maybe or maybe not. Obama has spending priorities of his own, which — if he’s elected — will take him weeks or months to put into legislative shape. So the Democratic Congress is potentially playing chicken with its own presidential nominee, not to mention Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who wants to freeze domestic spending for a year to evaluate federal programs.

Both Obama and McCain are vowing to end partisan bickering and reach across party lines to get things done. Has the message reached Congress? There’s no evidence of it.