Show Me the Budget

Americans might fondly remember many experiences from 1996, including watching “Independence Day” and “Jerry Maguire,” reading about the cloning of Dolly the sheep, dancing to the Macarena and surfing new websites such as Ask Jeeves and eBay.

That year also witnessed a rare, if more important event: Congress completing the budget process on time.

Unbelievable as it might seem, fiscal year (FY) 2017, which begins on Oct. 1, will mark the 20th anniversary of the last time (FY 1997) members of Congress were able to pass all of the appropriations bills that fund the federal government prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year. In each year since, Congress has resorted to passing a continuing resolution (CR), which provides funding similar to the level of the prior year, in order to buy time to complete the appropriations process.

In addition to FY 1997, all of the appropriations bills were passed on time only three other times in the past 40 years, FYs 1977, 1989 and 1995. Indeed, CRs have long been the rule rather than the exception.

Over the past 20 years, legislators have enacted an average of 5.6 CRs per year for an average of 137.5 days, or nearly five months. In two years, FYs 2011 and 2013, Congress resorted to full-year CRs. The past two decades have proven that members of Congress have not been very good at the most basic aspect of their job – punctually passing the annual appropriations bills.

The continued use of CRs not only exemplifies Congress’s abdication of its most basic responsibility, it also underminesthe effectiveness of agencies. CRs neutralize a significant advantage of the federal government: buying power. Instead of paying in advance for bulk orders of expensive items such as airplanes or electronic luggage screeners, short-term CRs force agencies to purchase fewer of these items at a time, which increases costs. CRs also create delays and raise prices for multi-year projects, as well as disrupt the hiring of new federal employees.

CRs are supposed to be temporary (with the two noted exceptions) in order to give members of Congress more time after the start of the fiscal year to complete all of the appropriations bills. But even with more time, instead of passing them individually, multiple bills are bunched together in omnibus appropriations packages. This quick enactment of thousands of pages of text is done in a manner that provides minimal time for members of Congress and the public to digest the bills’ contents.

Traditionally, members of Congress are supposed to have three days to review legislation before it is considered on the floor of the House. This is very important for appropriations bills, particularly omnibus versions that can include hundreds of billions of dollars in spending for dozens of agencies and programs. On January 5, 2011, the House formally stipulated that legislation must be made available to the public for three days prior to a vote.  However, in practice, the “24-hours-and-two-seconds rule” is used. A bill will be posted at 11:59 p.m. on a Tuesday, for example, and voted on just after midnight three calendar days later, at 12:01 a.m. Thursday morning.  Needless to say, this is not a reasonable interpretation of “three days,” and certainly not nearly enough time to review an omnibus appropriations package consisting of several thousand pages.

In January, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Ohio) declared their intention to promptly approve the appropriations bills for FY 2017 by Oct. 1.  Despite this pledge, the House has only passed six of the 12 bills thus far, while the Senate has approved just two. Clearly, Congress will again miss the mark and undoubtedly resort to a short-term CR.

The inability to adhere to the requirements of the budget process is one of many reasons for both Congress’ unpopularity and the lack of trust that taxpayers have in their elected officials. Perhaps the message that this behavior is not acceptable will force legislators to recommit themselves to the core responsibilities of their job beginning in 2017 and finally passing the appropriations bills on time once again.

However, given its track record, Congress is likely to continue miss the mark. Taxpayers have a better chance of seeing the third sequel to “Independence Day” or the third reincarnation of Dolly the sheep.

Thomas A. Schatz is the president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Morning Consult