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Congress is addicted to stop-gap budgets

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With government shutdowns now seeming to loom at every budget deadline, Washington seems more dysfunctional than ever. But let’s keep it in perspective: Congress almost never manages to pass the entire federal budget by the scheduled deadline of Sept. 30. Over the past 30 years, it’s happened only four times — in 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997. Every other year, Congress has depended on short-term stopgaps and omnibus bills to keep the government running. In 2001 alone, Congress relied on a record 21 Continuing Resolutions before a full budget could be passed, as tensions over the 1997 Balanced Budget Act boiled over. SOURCE: CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE, VIA SARAH BINDER CRs per year, including both stopgap extensions and omnibus bills.  

What has changed is the tenor and length of such negotiations. In an earlier era, budget dealmakers used CRs simply to buy themselves more time to reach a bipartisan deal, and the stopgaps were routinely passed as a matter of course, generally extending the budget at the previous year’s levels. But the budget process has gotten increasingly politicized as Congressional politics have become polarized, particularly over the size and role of government.

The normal budget process is a long slog to begin with: 12 separate appropriations bills have to pass out of committee and through both houses for a full budget to be passed. As the parties have gotten far apart, it’s taking even longer, as political scientists Sarah Anderson and Jonathan Woon have shown. As the deficit has ballooned, for instance, appropriations have become a bigger target for fiscal conservatives — even though entitlements that fall outside these budget bills are the bigger long-term driver of government spending. Budget dealmaking has also become more difficult with the ban on earmarks that the current Congress has imposed, which has made it harder to lure individual members with promises of spending in their respective states or districts.

All this is why Congress has had so much trouble passing a year-long budget resolution, turning instead to short-term extensions. As these stopgaps have supplanted traditional, year-long budget resolutions, the short-term CRs themselves have become the new battleground for policy battles and brinksmanship, as we’ve witnessed this year. Congress has now been relying on stopgap measures to fund the government for more than two years, ever since the GOP took the House. The last time it passed a full-fledged budget resolution through the normal legislative process was in April 2009 — without a single Republican vote — and it’s been using short-term CRs and bigger omnibus packages to keep the government running ever since.

Circumventing the traditional budget has also concentrated power in the hands of party leadership: rather than passing individual appropriations bills, vetted and passed out of Congressional committees, party leaders hammer out grand bargains themselves and push to get everyone else on board. Just this week, for instance, House GOP appropriations leaders introduced a highly controversial new bill for health, education, and labor spending without putting it up for a committee or subcommittee vote — partly because two GOP members were blocking it for going forward. Members like Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct.) denounced the move for going over the heads of the committee members and effectively removing the legislation from “public debate and amendment.”

At the same time, individual members have tried to influence negotiations by holding parts of the budget hostage--whether it’s disaster aid offsets or Planned Parenthood funding. In 2009 alone, the final appropriations bills took longer to pass on average than any other year since 1977, when the modern-day budget rules were first enacted.


“It’s the outgrowth of a very old appropriations process that can’t keep pace with hardcore partisan differences and ideological difference over spending,” says Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and Brookings fellow. “The stakes have gotten bigger as the debt as grown.”

Congress will have another chance to get its act together in the next few weeks, when it’s due to put together a budget for the rest of the 2012 fiscal year. It’s already agreed on one short-term extension that will keep the government going until Nov. 18. But the threat over an seemingly straightforward six-week budget, it’s unclear whether legislators will be able to avoid another blow-up — and avoid yet another short-term fix.

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