Congress Watch: Spending Bills Come to a Grinding Halt

Joe Jansen

July 7, 2014

Late last year, Congress agreed on a two-year budget deal that set overall spending levels for Fiscal Year 2014 and Fiscal Year 2015.  Theoretically, this deal should have made it much easier for Congress to pass the twelve annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government before the end of the fiscal year.  But, in a sign that the budget process is broken beyond repair, it does not even look like Congress will get close to completing its work on time.  To add insult to injury, passing spending bills is a constitutionally mandated job of Congress.

Each year, Congress has until September 30th – the end of the fiscal year – to pass twelve appropriations bills and complete the process of funding the federal government.  Typically, each chamber will use the summer months to slog through its work, starting with the least contentious appropriations bill and ending with the one that funds the Department of Health and Human Services (the “Labor-HHS” bill).  Starting the process with easier bills provides momentum for subsequent bills that tend to exacerbate political differences.  Leaving the more difficult work until last also means there will be less time to fight over the more contentious bills, making members of both parties more willing to compromise in order to get their work done on time.  In election years the process is even more compressed as members want to get out of Washington to go home and campaign for re-election.

So far this year the House has passed five of the twelve appropriations bills.  It is scheduled to be in session just 28 more days this year.  The House could possibly pass seven more bills in that 28 days, but there would be no time to go to conference with the Senate and complete work on all the bills prior to the end of the fiscal year.

The Senate situation is even worse.  It has completed work on a grand total of ZERO appropriations bills.  In fact, it is not even going to try to pass each bill separately.  The first attempt to pass an appropriations bill came before the July 4 recess, when it tried to take up a minibus – three separate appropriations bills packaged together as one.  That attempt failed in the usual dust up over the amendment process.  The path forward is anyone’s guess right now.

The current situation is not really unusual.  Congress last completed work on all appropriations bills prior to the end of the fiscal year in 1994.  It last completed its work on time in 1996, but only because it passed an appropriations package that lumped six of the bills together.

While omnibus spending packages, minibuses, and continuing resolutions keep the government’s doors open, they pose a number of problems.  Among other things, they often put government programs on autopilot. This is particularly true for continuing resolutions where funding is generally continued under the prior year’s funding level for some agreed-upon period of time.  Omnibus and minibus spending bills are large legislative vehicles considered under strict time constraints.  It is often impossible for members – and even watchdog groups – to scrutinize every provision prior to passage.  Often, they are also the last bills certain to move through Congress prior to the end of a session, so the temptation to bury within their thousands of pages provisions that could not pass in the light of day is high.

This year, it is obvious that Congress will not complete its work on time.  Since it is an election year, it will most likely pass a continuing resolution that keeps the government running through the November elections.  If the House or Senate changes hands, a second continuing resolution, this one lasting some time into the early part of the new Congress, will be enacted.  If all stays the same, Congress will begin work on an omnibus appropriations bill during a lame duck session and pass continuing resolutions as needed until it can finally get its work done.

No matter how the process unfolds, it’s hard to see how the American taxpayer wins.