Editorial: Total Failure

No Budget Passed This Year — and, So Far, No Appropriations Bills

Posted September 14, 2010 at 7:06pm

Here it is again, two weeks before the end of the fiscal year, and Congress once again has not performed one of its basic functions — appropriating funds to run the federal government.

But this year, the process breakdown is so complete it raises questions about whether Congress is even capable of doing this job.

Here’s the record. This year, for first time since implementation of the 1974 Budget Act, the House of Representatives failed to adopt a budget resolution.

It’s the fifth time that Congress as a whole has failed to lay down a spending agenda. Three Republican-dominated Congresses have failed to do so and, now, two Democratic Congresses. All of those failures were in election years.

Next record: Since 1974 — when Congress changed the fiscal year to allow three additional months to get appropriations bills cleared — all of the appropriations bills funding the various departments have been passed only four times by Oct. 1.

But this year, as of now, not one of the 12 annual appropriations bills has been passed. The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed nine, but the full Senate, none. The House has passed two, but the other 10 have not even been voted on by the full House Appropriations Committee.

The fundamental reason for this massive failure is the same one that threatens to block solutions for any of America’s urgent problems — hyperpartisanship, especially in election years.

Democratic leaders did not want to force their Members to vote on a budget showing deficits of more than $1 trillion for the next five years, so they passed a “deeming” resolution instructing appropriators on spending levels. One big drawback of this tactic for Democrats is that, without a formal budget resolution, they cannot extend their favored selection of Bush-era tax cuts as a reconciliation bill not subject to filibuster.

On the appropriations front, similarly, Democratic leaders did not want to force their Members to face embarrassing Republican amendments — particularly on earmarks — so they’ve stopped funding bills cold.

Some years, after passing a stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government going into the new fiscal year, Congress folds a number of appropriations into one or more omnibus or “mini-bus” bills to provide funds for the rest of the year. It’s not a very transparent process, but it gets the job done.

This year, as happened in 2006, the likelihood is for passage of one CR to get past the election — then (assuming Republicans score big gains) another one during Congress’ post-election, lame-duck session, presaging a funding donnybrook in February.

It’s bad enough that executive branch departments can’t plan their budgets in this environment. What’s worse is the prospect — if Republicans take over one or both chambers — that there could be an impasse between the Obama administration and Congress, leading to a government shutdown.

Even if that scenario does not unfold, it’s clear that hyperpartisanship has rendered the budgeting and funding process totally dysfunctional, at least in election years.

Perhaps it’s time for biennial budgeting — an old idea in the states, never adopted here — where there’s a chance for orderly action at least in the first year of a new Congress.