Has budget sanity returned to Congress? Not so fast. Special circumstances greased the skids this year. But deep political divisions will continue to generate budget crises, increasing pressure on lawmakers to revamp budget laws designed for the politics of the Watergate-era.
Here are four takeaways from this year’s budget cycle.
1. Lawmakers rarely follow “regular order” when funding the government
Every year, Congress and the president are required to appropriate funding for many federal government programs by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. When Congress follows “regular order,” each of the 12 subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees writes a spending bill that is then debated and adopted by each chamber and finalized in conference negotiations between the two chambers.
The last time a president signed all appropriations bills into law on time was 1996. Since then, high-profile political fights and Senate filibusters have often derailed individual bills. What’s more, the Budget Control Act of 2011 roiled budgeting by imposing a decade of tight caps on government spending.
As a result, lawmakers routinely bump up against the October deadline, use stopgap resolutions to buy more time and then lump the bills into a gigantic “omnibus” bill — sometimes months into the next fiscal year. Critics charge that omnibus legislating lacks transparency and leads to poor public policy. Party leaders say it is the best they can do.
This year, Congress has sent three bills to the president packaged as a “minibus,” and has readied a two-bill package for a vote before Oct. 1. A third, four-bill measure may also get finished on time. These steps will make this the most productive appropriations year in over two decades. Lawmakers are making progress on the remaining bills but will still need a stopgap bill to extend their deadline past October 1.
2. More budgetary stars are aligned this year
Why is the process moving more swiftly this year? Three reasons.
First, in February, Congress and the president reached a two-year budget deal that increased spending limits for defense and nondefense programs. Agreeing to the overall size of the federal pie early in the year gave the parties more time to negotiate how to divide it up.
Second, the budget deal lifted caps imposed under the 2011 budget law by $85 billion and $68 billion, respectively, for defense and nondefense spending. A bigger pie made it easier to compromise.
Third, Republican control of the House, Senate, and White House has generated new pressures on Republicans to reach deals with Democrats. At risk of losing their chamber majorities, Republicans want to deliver legislative wins before the November elections. Both parties’ leaders want to avoid shutting down any part of the government before Election Day. Convincing colleagues on both sides of the aisle to forgo attaching controversial policy riders to the spending bills was key.
President Trump remains a wild card. He has threatened several times to veto bills unless Congress agrees to spend billions on a wall along the southwest border. But Democrats and even some Republicans oppose spending as much as Trump has asked for.
Republicans have dodged the problem for now. They combined the defense bill — one of their major priorities — with the health and labor bill, which Democrats value, into a single legislative package. Then they added a stopgap measure to cover the remaining federal agencies, postponing a full fight about border wall funding until after the midterms. That means Trump cannot get funding for the border wall unless he is willing to veto the entire package, forcing the government to shut down. It is a risk Republicans bet the president will not take.
3. ‘Regular order’ is a misnomer
Regular order remains elusive. But framing the appropriations process as a choice between regular order and omnibus legislating misses the point: Lawmakers have been using a “hybrid” model for decades. They rely on regular order to write spending bills in committee, but then add extensions to buy time and lump bills together to overcome divisions and secure passage.
Regular order began to die in the 1980s when senators started to target spending bills with controversial amendments and occasional filibusters, delaying or blocking passage. Leaders responded by packaging bills together, knowing that bundling disparate policy areas such as defense, agriculture and social spending would give every member something to support. A take-it-or-leave it choice smoothed the way to passage.
Still, some semblance of regular order persists inside each chamber’s Appropriations Committee. They generally still hold hearings, draft and amend bills. The worst fears of critics of omnibus legislating — that the process is too hasty and informal to produce good legislation — were never fully accurate. By the time leaders assembled the omnibus, appropriations panels had already done most of the hard work.
4. Regular order might be a weak model for polarized times
In some ways, the hybrid system fits today’s politics. It capitalizes on the expertise of appropriators and their staffs and sets up opportunities for trading favors across issues. It might sacrifice floor deliberation, but it makes it easier to get bills over the finish line.
Moreover, large omnibus spending bills often allow other, non-spending priorities to hitch a ride to passage. One of the fall’s minibus bills, for example, carries a short-term reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. That is not surprising: If there is one big bill leaving the station, legislators often add a few more passengers — even if members did not get to fully vet each of them independently.
That said, the hybrid system is also under pressure. The appropriations panels hold fewer hearings today than they did in the 1980s, and the once clockwork performance of the Appropriations Committees has faltered in some recent years. Moreover, the process could well break down next year when stringent spending caps are due to kick in again.
A special congressional committee is working to propose reforms. A key challenge will be devising rules suitable for budgeting in a highly partisan era. The hybrid system may offer some lessons for reformers.
But do not be fooled by one year in which the machine functioned well: There is no easy way to fix the process if the parties and lawmakers have few incentives to follow the law.
This post has been edited to clarify the U.S. government’s fiscal year.
Molly Reynolds (@mollyereynolds) is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of “Exceptions to the Rule: The Politics of Filibuster Limitations in the U.S. Senate” (Brookings Institution Press, 2017).
Peter Hanson is associate professor of political science at Grinnell College and author of Too Weak to Govern: Majority Party Power and Appropriations in the U.S. Senate (Cambridge University Press 2014).