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Congress acted just in time this past week to avoid a government shutdown. If you feel like you read about this happening merely a few weeks ago, you’re not imagining it. It is something of a trend in Washington.
First, some good news: Lawmakers avoided the unnecessary pain of a shutdown. The spending bill includes more than $200 million for projects in Maine. It includes $14 billion in aid for Ukraine. And unlike shorter-term funding measures passed in September, December and February, this $1.5 trillion “omnibus” package of different spending areas provides funding through this coming September.
In theory, that gives appropriators somewhat of a chance to get back on schedule in terms of passing the 12 individual appropriations bills before the start of the next fiscal year. Recent history doesn’t inspire much confidence that this will actually happen. But it should.
Lawmakers have consistently struggled to pass the individual appropriations bills on time. And, yet, apparently, they and their staff were able to consider and vote on an omnibus bill of more than 2,700 pages in less than two days.
Asked about the process of passing such a large bill with such little time for review, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, said that it “stinks.” To be fair, the entire process has stunk for quite some time.
Here’s what we had to say in February, when last month’s continuing resolution (CR) reminded us of the movie “Groundhog Day”:
“Congress needs to stop jumping from one shutdown deadline to another. It’s a process that makes about as much sense as relying on a rodent to predict the weather every February,” the editorial board wrote. “Sure, it almost seems normal at this point. But that doesn’t mean it works.”
We had almost exactly the same thing to say in 2019:
“The federal government may not be experiencing the same day over and over, but it does seem trapped in an unproductive, irresponsible cycle of short-term funding bills that just barely avert a government shutdown,” we wrote.
And sadly, not much has changed since March of 2011:
“Before this week’s recess, Congress passed another continuing resolution — a measure to fund the government in the short term. This is the sixth continuing resolution since December 2010. The resolution will keep the government funded and operational for three weeks, at which time lawmakers likely will adopt another CR because they will be nowhere near addressing real budget problems,” the editorial board wrote at the time. “Both parties agree that serious talks about the future of federal spending and the deficit should begin after the resolution is passed. They disagree, however, on what spending realms should be a priority. This can’t be allowed to sidetrack this overdue work.”
There continue to be real consequences to this broken budgeting process. Whether you’re a dove or a hawk, want to shrink the size of government or think Congress should be spending more money to address unmet needs, there is something for everyone to hate in how this unfolds time and again.
“Operating under a CR or the possibility of a shutdown, or both, creates uncertainty, complicates agency operations, and leads to inefficiencies,” a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said.
“The short-term bills neutralize the government’s significant buying power. Inconsistent and uncertain payments to agencies force them to purchase fewer items at a time, rather than paying in advance for bulk orders at lower prices,” Sean Kennedy, the director of policy and research at non-profit group Citizens Against Government Waste wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Hill. “New programs cannot be initiated, and agencies cannot alter existing acquisition plans on the fly. CRs create delays and raise costs for multi-year projects and disrupt the onboarding of new employees.”
Again, it is a good thing that Congress reached a deal on the omnibus package (not another CR) and funded the government through September. The alternative of a shutdown was no alternative at all. But that doesn’t change the fact that the overall budget process has been a lousy one.
Congress has a way of buying itself more time without spending it wisely. Lawmakers need to get the federal budget process back on track and stop jumping from one last-minute deal to the next.