“It’d be a pretty good incentive to get things done,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
In a Congress gridlocked in all kinds of ways, nothing seems more busted than the process of developing the federal budget — its most basic responsibility.
Three weeks into the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and with a hard-fought short-term funding measure in place that will expire Nov. 18, the government is a month from again facing the possibility of a shutdown.
With the House in recess last week and the Senate away this week, it is expected the chambers will find it difficult to agree by the deadline on a spending plan to last through September. That could mean adopting another short-term measure in November and forcing another debate about spending at its expiration.
And there is no guarantee that process will not break down along the way — as it did in April and September — again forcing high-drama votes with the continued operation of the government hanging in the balance.
To a public disgusted by partisan bickering, Congress seemingly lurches from one confusing spending crisis to the next. But congressional observers and many members believe the showdown-of-the-month pattern is a symptom of a deeper sickness in how Congress plans the government’s spending.
Last week, the Senate spent days debating a $182 billion spending measure to fund agriculture, criminal justice, transportation and housing agencies through September — the kind of legislating that was once routine but is now rare. The hope was to create a path to an agreement between the House and Senate on spending for at least some federal agencies before Nov. 18.
Though the Senate made progress on the measure, disputes over how many amendments to consider delayed a final vote until Monday, when the Senate will return from a weeklong recess.
“It’s a very serious problem. The world’s greatest democracy cannot produce a budget,” said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in Congress and is director of the Center on Congress at Indian University. “When people say it’s dysfunctional, when they say it’s not working well, the budget process I think is Exhibit A in that charge.”
How it’s supposed to work
The process dates to 1974, when Congress overhauled the way the government’s spending is planned, in an effort to enhance its role as keeper of the purse strings. It begins with the president submitting a recommended budget to Congress in February for the fiscal year that will begin the following Oct. 1.
By April 15, both chambers of Congress are supposed to adopt their own budget resolutions, which are to broadly outline how much the government will collect and spend for the year.