Presidential politics might be capturing attention and headlines, but in an unsurprising twist, the biggest standoff affecting taxpayers is quietly happening right now in Washington. There are less than three weeks left before the end of fiscal year 2016, and Congress has to move quickly to pass funding for next year and avoid a government shutdown.
This standoff is occurring primarily because Congress cannot pass a budget and then all 12 appropriations bills individually. In fact, this process hasn’t been completed since 1994. What has happened instead is Congress usually passes either an omnibus (rolling the spending bills together into a package) or a continuing resolution (keeping funding at its current levels) or some ghastly combination of the two, right before the deadline.
This year, the fights mostly center upon the timeframe in which the continuing resolution should take place and whether it will be “short-term” or “long-term.” A short-term continuing resolution – which seems increasingly likely – means Congress will have to pass another spending package in December, during the “lame duck” session after the November election.
Many worry that this arrangement will encourage waste as Members of Congress can vote to spend without electoral consequences. Some conservatives are demanding assurance that Zika research funding will not go to Planned Parenthood, or even changes to Syrian refugee policy, in exchange for supporting a short-term measure.
Of course, a longer-term agreement (which Democrats have promised to block) would not come without issues. It could end up expiring around the time Congress is due for another debt limit crisis, not to mention bumping up against the arbitrary deadline Congress gave itself for emptying out the Overseas Contingency Operations slush fund – and presumably then asking for more spending.
It’s almost like fiscal conservatives have few good options.
Congress has a relatively straightforward duty to follow the budget process. How did things become such a mess? Over time since the passage of the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act, things have become increasingly complicated, and the process fails almost by default.
With massive differences in funding priorities for the parties – domestic vs. defense, for example – not to mention disagreement in the ranks, Democrats and Republicans tend to wait until the end of the fiscal year when they are forced to finally come to an agreement. Too often, these agreements are hammered out by leadership and Members are not given an opportunity even to read what they are voting on at risk of shutdown. Add in the regular debt limit standoffs, and you have a recipe for dysfunction and waste without much chance for the kind of real reforms we desperately need to reign in soaring deficits and debt.
Fiscal conservatives are not stuck in this mess, though. Fixing budget dysfunction might not be easy, but taking steps in that direction – whether attempting to strengthen the current debt ceiling process or tackling baseline budgeting – is possible and something anyone who cares about the country’s balance sheet should pursue.
A note of caution here would be helpful: Passing something for the point of passing something is not the goal. Sometimes, dysfunction and standoffs are well-earned. Fighting within the ranks and disrupting the process can be the only way the constitution and fiscal sanity are protected against awful legislation that the establishment in both parties would otherwise slip through. Despite what the political class might think, passing nothing is better than passing something terrible, and productivity is not necessarily good on its own.
But outcomes matter, and more often than not, the big spenders in both parties win when budgetary dysfunction reigns. After all, when it comes to funding the government, Congress does, in fact, have to pass something. And in an age of contrived standoffs and partisan bickering while our nation inches closer to its fiscal cliff, it’s up to us to put the brakes on this runaway train – which may involve taking a closer look at why the train is broken to begin with.