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Political Scene

Budget Procrastination
Emily Lehr Wallace

Congress was given 18 powers in Article I of the Constitution. Chief among those is the power to raise and spend money, typically referred to as the “power of the purse.” Each year, the Department of the Treasury takes in tax money from corporations and individuals alike. It’s the job of Congress to budget that money and dole it out to various agencies and programs that provide for our common defense, pave new highways, provide healthcare for our veterans, educate our children and secure the homeland. But, what happens when Congress does not complete its work by the start of the new fiscal year?

This is not an unheard-of scenario: In recent memory, only in 1977, 1989 and 1997 was their work wrapped up when the fiscal year began on Oct. 1. And since 1980, there have been seven years when Congress did not complete a single spending bill by the start of the fiscal year. Lawmakers have passed more than 100 stop-gap spending measures, called continuing resolutions, to keep the government running until their work is completed. In fact, continuing resolutions have been used almost since the birth of the republic to give Congress and the president more time to iron out disagreements and make the deals needed to get spending bills signed into law.

James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, told the Washington Post on Oct. 7, 2002: “When we don’t have a consensus in society about what we want our money to be spent on, that manifests itself in deadlock on the Hill.”

The budget debate in recent years has taken on a particularly bitter tone as the deficit has risen in the wake of September 11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. High deficits mean little wiggle room for domestic discretionary spending and pit programs against each other. One of the toughest bills to pass through both houses of Congress is the Veterans Administration/Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies appropriations bill. This piece of legislation is difficult because it contains funding for the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency and NASA along with a number of other independent agencies, such as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It is a delicate balancing act to provide ample and adequate healthcare for veterans while also funding the nation’s groundbreaking scientific research, protecting the environment and exploring the new frontier in space. While these funding decisions are being hashed out at the eleventh hour (and often far, far beyond), agencies, programs and their federal workers are left teetering on the edge. Agency heads and program managers do not like continuing resolutions because they force agencies to pursue this year’s priorities under last year’s funding levels. That can be especially troublesome if the agency has taken on new missions or programs. The delay can also interfere with hiring and budget planning and can make employees nervous about the fate of their annual pay increase.

For example, during the 1995 government shutdown, Government Computer News reported that NASA’s chief concern was keeping all of their assets in low-Earth orbit, high-Earth orbit and deep space staying “up.” The Space Shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to dock with the Russian Mir space station the day after furloughs began. About 2,000 employees were necessary to provide for the safety and security of Atlantis and NASA’s other assets and to perform the daily work required to keep future shuttle launches on schedule. The other 19,000 employees were sent home.

In 2002 on the Senate floor, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) called budgeting by continuing resolution “the worst possible way to govern” because it allows for “obfuscation and abuse” while “ignor[ing] critical needs.”

So, what’s the answer? After drawn-out battles over spending on “guns versus butter” in the Vietnam era, Congress in 1974 passed landmark budget legislation that was supposed to create a more orderly system. It required Congress to pass an annual budget that the Appropriations Committee had to live with. But the system continues to be a train wreck waiting to happen every year.

This year, the House and Senate each passed a budget, but failed to reach a compromise for one roadmap for appropriations. As such, the two houses are operating with two different sets of numbers dictating the caps on spending for each appropriations bill. In short, negotiations over individual spending bills between the House and Senate this fall will be particularly difficult because each will think they have the “magic number.”

Instead of resorting to the cheap fix of governing by continuing resolution until a budget is passed two or more months behind schedule, with across-the-board cuts on all programs, some people believe it is time for Congress to reassess how and when they budget. Several years ago, for example, a movement was afoot to have the federal budget operate on a two-year budget cycle. That would let lawmakers perform proper oversight and management of the agencies and programs within their purview on the off-year and then get down to the nitty-gritty of passing such behemoth legislation during the on-year. However, sensing this would take some of the power and cachet out of being in charge of the only 13 bills that must pass each year, appropriators outright opposed the idea, and it has languished.

And so we have an eternally compressed calendar wherein the congressional members spend nearly as much time in their districts as they do in Washington, D.C. When they are in the Capitol, the atmosphere is so partisan and bitter that the vast majority of the bills the policy-makers can agree on and pass are Post Office designations. If the average American were aware enough of the budget process to be outraged by this governance via procrastination, perhaps the Congress would get the message and perform one of their central duties in an efficient and timely manner.


Wallace is with the Government Affairs Program at the American Geological Institute. Email: govt@agiweb.org.

The views presented here are solely those of the author, and do not reflect the views of the American Geological Institute and its member societies.

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