August 12, 2016
With only two weeks left on the legislative calendar before the House and Senate leave town for more than seven weeks for the national conventions and their regularly scheduled summer recess, little progress has been made towards completing the appropriations process. So far the House and Senate have each passed just three bills, none of which are likely to reach the president’s desk, let alone be signed into law.
Once Congress comes back into session the day after Labor Day, they will have just four weeks left to pass legislation to keep the government open before taking another six weeks off to campaign leading up to the November elections.
Earlier this year, promises were made by both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledging to restore regular order in the appropriations process. This meant that a budget would be agreed upon and all 12 annual appropriations bills would be brought to the House and Senate floors, voted on, conferenced, and sent to the president for his signature or veto. This would have marked a significant departure from the past several years when multiple continuing resolutions, huge omnibus spending bills, and a more than two week government shutdown in 2013 had become the norm.
The process got off to a rough start before it even began, thanks to the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) last fall. The Obama-Boehner deal busted through the $1.04 trillion discretionary spending cap set by the Budget Control Act of 2011(BCA), raising it by $30 billion for 2017 and leaving a sour taste in the mouths of many conservative lawmakers.
Not wanting to revisit the BBA drama, the Senate never made any attempt to pass a budget resolution. But it got off to a good start on appropriations, passing its first bill on May 12. This was the earliest that the Senate had passed an appropriations bill in decades. One week later, the Senate passed two more pieces of legislation, and the process seemed to be moving at full speed ahead.
Since May 19, though, no more bills have been passed, and little progress has been made. The Senate spent several weeks debating the annual National Defense Authorization Act and has since been bogged down in the debate over gun control and other time-sensitive issues such as Zikafunding and the Puerto Rico bailout.
The House got off to a later start and has continued to flounder. In recent years, the House has started the appropriations process earlier than the Senate. However, this year they spent several extra weeks trying to reach a deal to pass a budget resolution that ultimately never came to pass. The main impediment in passing a budget was the argument over which spending level was appropriate. On May 19, the first appropriations bill passed the House. Just one week later, there was another setback when the Energy and Water appropriations bill failed due to an amendment preventing federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. Since that failure, two more bills have passed, but prior to the recess for Independence Day, the Financial Services and General Government bill was pulled from the calendar due to a floor protest over gun control.
With time quickly running out before the September 30 deadline, the prognosis is clear: Congress is facing yet another year when most appropriations bills will fail to pass even one chamber and a last-minute, crisis-driven continuing resolution will have to be passed so that lawmakers can limp through election season with the government and its millions of employees still on the job. Assuming that happens, there will be another impending deadline after the election, and Americans can expect more continuing resolutions or a massive omnibus spending bill to fund the government for the rest of 2017.
The country deserves better. Lawmakers must stick to the BCA spending caps that they themselves put into place and stop adding on to already out-of-control debt totals. It’s time for Congress to start doing one of their few fundamental jobs and restore an appropriations process that’s open to debate and where tough decisions about national priorities can be made. The country cannot afford for Congress to continue governing by crisis.
Originally published in The Hill.