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Playing With Deadline: No Answer to Annual Appropriations Mess

“Why,— I was asked Thursday as fiscal 2010 began, “doesn’t Congress change the start of the federal fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 so that it has more time to adopt all appropriations?—

[IMGCAP(1)]The person who was asking was actually complaining because he always has trouble between Oct. 1 and Jan. 1 getting the years right in his checkbook. He didn’t really care that much about whether appropriations are done on time. But it’s still a good question that deserves a serious response.

The federal fiscal year was last changed in 1974 when Oct. 1 replaced the previous July 1 start. The expectation at the time was that the three extra months would provide more than enough time to put appropriations in place and would reduce or eliminate the need for continuing resolutions. Anyone who watches the budget process knows that obviously hasn’t worked as planned and continuing resolutions are as common today as they were three-plus decades ago.

So why hasn’t the start of the fiscal year been changed to Jan. 1? There are three reasons.

The first is that it’s not really a good idea. If appropriations don’t have to be adopted until Dec. 31 and Election Day is the first week in November, does anyone really think that, at least in even-numbered years, many appropriations will be enacted before voters go to the polls?

It’s also not a good idea because the three-month delay will make it all but impossible for the president to complete work on next year’s budget by the first-Monday-in-February deadline if appropriations are not completed until Dec. 31. This could be dealt with by delaying the date the budget has to be released by a month or two. But that would mean that the only year Congress actually would have three extra months to complete work on appropriations would be the first year the change went into effect. After that, it would have the same amount of time it has now and there would be calls for changing the start of the fiscal year from the just-implemented Jan. 1 to April 1 to give Congress — you guessed it — more time to deal with appropriations

Third, the three months between Oct. 1 and Jan. 1 are full of national and religious holidays, during which Congress likely would not be in session. The 12 additional weeks on paper to complete work on appropriations would translate into no more than about six after taking Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas/Hanukkah/ Kwanzaa into account. Add Election Day every other year, and the need for Representatives and Senators to be campaigning in the weeks leading up to it and 12 potential additional weeks of work would end up being four or less.

Getting appropriations done on time was difficult enough when they were simply seen as spending decisions that allowed the government to do things. But with federal spending now defined by some as a four-letter word, the minority party increasingly sees stopping any and all legislation from being enacted as a good political strategy because it shows the majority can’t keep the trains running on time, and as decreased government effectiveness is considered a justification for cutting spending and taxes, enacting appropriations at all ­— let alone by the start of the fiscal year — has become an even greater problem.

The fact that only part of one of the fiscal 2010 appropriations was enacted by the time the fiscal year began is less newsworthy than the situation that existed over much of the last decade or so. Appropriations typically are adopted late in transition years like this one, when the details Congress needs to do its work on these bills are sent to Capitol Hill way beyond the first-Monday-in-February deadline. Given that many of the fiscal 2010 details weren’t available until May, Congress gets a free pass this year. The fact that the full House and Senate Appropriations committees have already adopted all of the 2010 spending bills and the full Senate has passed six of them actually is a hopeful sign.

The better question than the one I was asked last week about changing the start of the fiscal year is, “Why isn’t there more outrage over what has become a persistent failure to get appropriations in place on time?—

Part of the answer is that once you get past the Washington Beltway and the Congressional budget process stops being a topic for discussion for “SportsCenter— on ESPN, very few people care. As Congressional Republicans learned in 1995 when they took the heat for the government shutdowns, it simply doesn’t matter to the average American whether Washington operates on a regular appropriation, omnibus appropriation or continuing resolution as long as the services he or she wants continue to be available.

The average outside-the-Beltway person also isn’t outraged because they don’t see or feel the problems delayed appropriations and continuing resolutions cause for the federal departments and agencies stuck with the extreme implementation problems they cause. Continuing resolutions may keep a department operating, but they also typically prevent anything new from being started until the regular appropriation is enacted. When, as has often happened in recent years, the appropriation is delayed for months, the department has to scramble to get the work done.

This is why some people say continuing resolutions shouldn’t be allowed. If changing the start of the fiscal year won’t help and voters will only get angry if there’s a shutdown, then why not give Congress a choice between voter anger and making appropriations a higher priority so they’re always enacted on time? But given the extraordinary negative reaction to the last shutdown, it’s hard to imagine either political party putting that type of doomsday scenario in place.

One final word: Happy Fiscal New Year. Except when you need to stoke the economy, may your revenues always exceed your outlays.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.— His blog is Capital Gains and Games.

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