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Congress Deserves Some Slack for the Appropriations Delay

One of the things you learn quickly when you spend any time on Capitol Hill is that you never use the phrase “omnibus appropriation— in mixed company. In this case, “mixed company— means any group of people that includes a current or former Member or staffer of the House or Senate Appropriations committees.

[IMGCAP(1)]To an appropriator, “omnibus appropriation— is fightin’ words, a challenge to their dignity, a slap across the face with a glove, the legislative equivalent of saying something nasty about their mother, and, well, you get the picture.

Appropriators see their job as getting Congress to pass each year’s individual appropriations. In spite of the dismal record of the past few decades, that’s still a responsibility the vast majority of Appropriations Committee members and staff takes very seriously. Regardless of which political party controls the House and Senate, the overall political situation, and other legislative priorities, Republican and Democratic appropriators usually push their leadership to get the spending bills passed by the start of the fiscal year instead of relying on continuing resolutions or combining whichever bills haven’t been adopted into the dreaded omnibus. They often make it an issue when that doesn’t happen.

So why doesn’t it seem to be much of a concern this year? Seven fiscal 2010 appropriations are not yet enacted and, after several continuing resolutions, an omnibus by the end of this year is increasingly being talked about as a real, and apparently not that controversial, possibility.

One reason is recent history. The government shutdowns that occurred in 1995 and 1996, when Republicans took it on the political chin for not passing stopgap funding to keep the government operating in the midst of a big budget dispute with the Clinton administration, is still very much on the minds of many Representatives and Senators. Contrary to what then-House Budget Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio) and others expected, even if you think voters believe spending should be cut, they don’t like it when the federal services they want aren’t available when they want them. As a result, for political reasons, shutdowns are no longer considered a viable option. Members of Congress who argue against a CR or omnibus appropriation take a huge risk.

A second reason is that, at least since the shutdowns of the mid-1990s, it has become increasing clear that few people outside the Beltway care enough about the technicalities of the legislative process to worry about whether an agency or department is funded with something other than a regular appropriation. This is ultimate “inside baseball—; it simply doesn’t matter to most people.

The one exception to this is government contractors. In most cases, a continuing resolution prohibits the federal agencies and departments it covers from starting anything new. For many contractors, that means that the work they expect to be funded or on which they are planning to bid is delayed for weeks or months. They definitely do care, therefore, which legislation is used. For them, an individual or omnibus appropriation is good and a continuing resolution is bad.

But as much as they might like to do so, contractors are not in the best position to push Congress on this issue. Polls show that the industry is not that highly regarded, and this would definitely reinforce that image by appearing to be totally self-serving. Equally as important, however, is that, while publicly encouraging the House and Senate to act quickly on appropriations would make appropriators happy, it very likely would irk the leadership and other Members who would see the effort as at least implied criticism. As a result, the one group that has the most direct interest having appropriations in place by the start of the fiscal year has no better than mixed incentives for pushing for that to happen.

But the biggest reason that delayed appropriations hasn’t been much of an issue this year is the presidential transition that, as almost always happens, delayed the submission of the detailed version of the president’s budget to Congress. Although the White House submitted a summary version of its budget on Feb. 26, the details were not released until May 7. Because Congress typically waits for the president before moving ahead, the fiscal 2010 appropriations process was already seriously, although not unexpectedly, behind schedule.

Based on that three-month delay, Congress actually is doing a relatively decent job in moving ahead with the individual appropriations bills this year. According to the Library of Congress’ Thomas (thomas.loc.gov/home/approp/app10.html), the House passed its version of all appropriations by July 30; the Senate passed its version of five before the fiscal year began.

In the past, I’ve openly and angrily been very critical when Congress has failed to deal with appropriations. I’ve been especially disparaging when the inability to get the appropriations in place by the start of the fiscal year was more due to a lack of desire or an unwillingness to deal with the issues rather than a limited amount of time. Neither of those is evident this year. As a result, Congress deserves some slack.

But that won’t be the case next year. Even though the fiscal 2011 budget process will likely include proposed reductions in appropriations as part of an overall deficit reduction plan and many of the decisions that have to be made and votes that have to be taken will be painful, the president’s budget is expected to be submitted by the first-Monday-in-February deadline. In addition, the first Monday in February is the 1st, the earliest possible day it could be. Next year, therefore, Congress should be judged on how many appropriations are in place by the start of the fiscal year and whether it avoids any stopgap bills.

Note to appropriators: I did not use the phrase “omnibus appropriation— in the prior paragraph.

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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