Major Spending Bills May Wait Until After Election
Policy + Politics

Major Spending Bills May Wait Until After Election

For logistical, procedural  and political reasons, the Democratic congressional leadership is seriously considering  postponing votes on the fiscal 2011 appropriations bills — the legislation that keeps the government funded and therefore operating — until after the November midterm  election. Under the plan being discussed, the debate on the spending bills would be delayed until the lame-duck session of Congress that will likely be held between Election Day and Christmas.

If the leadership embraces this approach, it would mean that federal agencies and departments would not have their full-year funding until at least eight weeks after the new fiscal year begins.  If you care about how Washington operates, if you are a federal employee, and — especially — if you do business with the federal government, this definitely is not good news.

For sure, there’s nothing unusual about Congress missing its deadlines for completing work on spending bills.  In fact, Congress was so chronically late in passing appropriations bills that in 1974 it changed the start of the federal fiscal year from July 1 to October 1 so that the House and Senate would have three additional months to  complete this essential work  on time. 

But that hasn’t solved the problem, especially in recent years. According to THOMAS, the Library of Congress’ online database for legislation, only one of roughly a dozen fiscal 2005 appropriations bills was signed into law before the fiscal year began. The situation was only slightly better for fiscal 2006, when two of the bills were enacted before the fiscal year began. And only one appropriation measure was enacted by October 1 for fiscal years 2007 through 2010. That’s not one a year; that’s a total of one in all four years. A series of stopgap continuing resolutions and huge omnibus bills were used to handle spending in that period.

As hard as it is to imagine, the 2011 spending effort could be even worse for a number of reasons. First, Congress may not even attempt to adopt a budget resolution, Congress’ big picture budget blueprint for the coming year. The stated reason is political: Many Democrats want to avoid having to vote on a document projecting a deficit in excess of  $1 trillion.  Even the good budget news earlier this week that the deficit could be $300 billion below previous projections has not changed many Democratic minds about the political pain involved in approving a budget before the election.

Technically, the House and Senate must wait for the budget resolution to be in place before debating any of the appropriations bills.  And even though the House may begin to debate the bills on May 15 if no budget resolution is in place, it rarely does. 

Add to that a congressional calendar calling for recesses for Memorial Day, Independence Day and August through Labor Day, and plans for a break around October 1 so that House members and senators have a month to campaign, and it’s not hard to see that there are actually very few days left for Congress to work on the 2011 appropriations bills.  Assuming the House and Senate are in session on Mondays and Fridays, there are only about 75 work days left before the start of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1. With Senate Republicans in full filibuster mode, a Supreme Court nominee to be considered and financial reform still to be debated, expecting to see the enactment of even a few of the spending bills by the start of October is optimistic.

None of this is to suggest that the government will be threatened with another shutdown. Congress learned during the two shutdowns that took place in late 1995 and early 1996 that voters profoundly dislike not having access to federal services. The political price that Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority paid for those shutdowns during the Clinton Administration convinced lawmakers from both parties that they never wanted to be blamed for another one.

No appropriations mean that Congress will rely on a “continuing resolution” — a CR in federal-speak — to keep agencies and departments operating. 

CRs are the reason you should hate what may be ahead if you’re a federal employee or a government contractor. A department or agency operating under a continuing resolution for 2011 likely won’t get its new spending level until months after the fiscal year begins — and that new level could be much higher or lower than the spending allowed by the CR. Any required reductions or increases will have to be implemented in a shorter period of time than a full year and, therefore, will be far more difficult to manage.

The problem will be at least as difficult for government contractors because continuing resolutions typically don’t permit agencies to begin any new programs or procurements. A company that has been expecting a project to start will have to wait months for the funds to become  available.  The largest contractors can usually cope with the funding delays; the smaller contractors often cannot.

Would changing the start of the fiscal year again so that it began on Jan. 1 help? Probably not; that didn’t work in 1974. Moreover, even if the deadline were changed to the end of the calendar year, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and, every other year, Election Day, would consume most of that extended period. Therefore, unless  there’s a sudden change in budget politics, getting the spending bills done by the start of the fiscal year might not happen for or a long while