Washington spending debates would be less messy if they were just about spending

One dollar bills have been dropped into a tip jar at a car wash in Brooklyn, N.Y., Oct. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The Constitution delegates to Congress the power of the purse, but the modern system of federal government budgeting began with the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. It would be madness to suggest the labyrinthine process of funding our government could be fairly explained in a column of 800 words or less, but with yet another shutdown on the horizon, let me do it in 80.

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The administration drafts a budget request and sends it to Congress by early February. Then, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzes the proposal and projects its effects on Washington’s fiscal situation for one year and one decade, comparing them to the alternative of retaining the prior year’s spending levels. With the president’s request in mind, the House and Senate pass and reconcile budget resolutions, and a new budget is ready for the fiscal year starting in October.

In practice, I need not tell you this is not what happens. It’s January now, and instead of preparing to receive a budget request from the White House for Fiscal Year 2019, Congress is considering passing its fourth temporary spending bill since Fiscal Year 2018 began in October. That’s on the table and another shutdown is possible because our government has reached such depths of incompetence and morass that even Washington’s favorite activity—spending—has become a struggle.

I’m being glib, and of course there are more specific reasons at play. The single largest hangup is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program that permits immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States as kids to avoid deportation if they fulfill certain requirements, most notably not committing any crimes.

President Trump rescinded DACA back in September, which he could do unilaterally because it was never a real law, only an executive order in which then-President Obama directed immigration agents to prioritize other deportations. Trump tossed DACA to Congress, and here we are today. Even though 70 percent Americans—including, sometimes, the president—support DACA, more than four months after Trump canceled the program, no DACA deal has been reached.

I’m in that 70 percent. I want to see DACA made into law the right way so the 800,000 people this rule affects won’t have to wonder if the lives they’ve built in America are about to be destroyed every four to eight years at a new president’s whim.

But DACA isn’t a spending issue, and neither are many of the disputes that led to government shutdowns in the past. Since that budget bill in 1974, Washington has gone through 18 funding gap shutdowns (though not all of them resulted in employee furloughs like those in recent years). In that time, arguably only three (1976, 1981, and 1990) were primarily about what to spend. In other years, the obstacle was mainly or exclusively other policy questions that should have been settled on their own time, in their own right.

There were three shutdowns in 1977, for example, all tied to the question of whether Medicaid dollars could pay for abortions in circumstances where the life of the mother was not at stake. Yes, this debate was about spending, but it wasn’t primarily about spending. The circumstances under which tax dollars should pay for abortion is a far bigger issue than a simple allocation of funds. This question should have been settled on its own before budget negotiations began.

Likewise, when the government shut down over questions like whether to buy a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1978, whether to aid the Nicaraguan Contras in 1987, or whether to curtail death-row appeals in 1995, the spending debate was tied to separate policy topics that should have been addressed alone.

When Congress mashes together a whole bunch of issues like this—when lawmakers or the president link a time-sensitive bill like the budget with separate questions like abortion or, this year, DACA—both are done a disservice. This lazy, compromised lawmaking is what gets us to the possibility of a fourth temporary spending bill with DACA recipients’ fate still up in the air.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) introduced a proposal a couple years ago to require Congress to stick to a single subject in any bill, the aptly named “One Subject at a Time Act.” As with previous iterations of this concept, it did not pass—but it should, because no one is well served by the muddled incompetence on display in Washington this week.

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