Congress struggles to fix budget gridlock as another deadline looms


Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), right, is sponsoring a bill aimed at fixing Congress’s broken budget process. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

This is how badly broken Congress’s budget process has become: A Democrat and a Republican in the Senate have jointly proposed the radical idea that if Congress can’t come up with a budget by April 15 — a legal deadline now routinely blown — the national legislature would simply shut down.

No other bills would be considered. No post offices named, no judges confirmed. Congress wouldn’t even be able to abandon Washington and go home on recess.

“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.

This is when the appropriations committees used to get to work in each chamber, drawing up 12 separate bills that outline how much money will go to different agencies for various programs.

Each chamber is supposed to pass its own versions of the 12 bills, then negotiate the differences between them and pass identical measures by the time the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. That way, federal agencies start the year knowing what to spend in the 12 months ahead.

The process has never worked well. Since 1974, Congress has followed the process as designed — passing a budget and all 12 spending bills on time — twice.

In other years, lawmakers have bought time with short-term spending bills that keep government open while they work to hammer out spending priorities for the year.

Unable to complete work on the individual spending measures, they have also taken to grouping them into omnibus bills, allowing greater speed but less scrutiny of agencies and programs.

But budget observers say the process has gotten worse as Washington has become more partisan. With a Republican majority in the House determined to make deep spending cuts, Congress could not agree until April on spending for the year that ended Sept. 30 — and then just an hour before government was set to close down.

For this year, the House has passed six of the 12 appropriations bills due Sept. 30, the Senate only one. No compromise measures have passed both chambers.

The gridlocked Senate has especially struggled — failing to adopt a budget to even start the process this year or last.

“The number of different steps you have to go through — each one of which makes sense on paper — turns out in the aggregate to be more than Congress can accomplish in all but the most fortunate of circumstances,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And things haven’t been functioning in the most fortunate of circumstances in a long time.”

Members of both parties agree the budgeting breakdown results in all kinds of troubling consequences. Temporary fixes and frequent showdowns shake public confidence in the ability of government to handle its business.

Again and again, as the Senate debated amendments cutting or increasing funding for various programs during last week’s debate, senators rose to beg that they somehow find a way to make that kind of once-routine legislative give-and-take more common.

“We are showing that we can govern,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).

Time for little else

Senators agree they gobble up so much of the year locked in battle over how much to spend that the chamber has little time to do anything else — and that includes providing oversight to ensure programs work as designed.

The gridlock and last-minute crisis votes also discourage tackling the hardest issues bedeviling the budget. And the process excludes spending on entitlements — the fastest-growing part of the federal budget.

“Right now, the process makes it very difficult to tackle our structural problems, which is the great challenge for our times,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, which like its Senate counterpart has been holding hearings on budget reform.

Various efforts — such as the last-resort proposal from Cardin and Ayotte to shut down a budgetless Congress — have been put forth.

One idea gaining traction would have Congress compile a budget every two years instead of every year. Biennial budgeting, which has been endorsed by bipartisan budget writers in both chambers, would let Congress spend a year deciding how to spend tax dollars and then a year on oversight of whether those dollars were being spent wisely.

But in a legislature unable to agree even on little things, finding agreement on changes to the very way business gets done is unlikely.

And for now, it appears Congress has given up on itself.

Even as it muddles through figuring out spending for the next year, it has abandoned its normal structure by assigning the task of straightening out the nation’s finances to a bipartisan panel, said Alice M. Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Established in the August deal that raised the nation’s debt ceiling, the panel of 12 senators and representatives has been afforded such broad powers that it has been dubbed the “supercommittee.” Tasked with coming up with a way by Nov. 23 to cut the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, the supercommittee can consider any proposal to accomplish the goal, including entitlement and tax reform.

The rest of Congress will have no ability to tweak the panel’s plan; it can only vote it up or down.

“It’s evidence that the members of Congress recognized we can’t do this by the ordinary process,” Rivlin said. “We need to do something extraordinary.”

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