Congress Blog

A quarter century of budget futility  

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Members of Congress have extended their abysmal record for missing the deadline for passing the appropriations bills before the beginning of the fiscal year. They should have approved all 12 appropriations bills by Oct. 1, 2021, which marked the beginning of fiscal year (FY) 2022. Instead, their remarkably inept streak of not fulfilling their most basic Constitutional duty has reached 25 consecutive years. 

In every year since FY 1997, Congress has passed a continuing resolution (CR), which provides the same funding level as the prior year to buy time to complete the appropriations process. There have been 120 CRs beginning with FY 1998, averaging five such bills each year. While intended to be short-term, the bills have lasted on average 142.7 days, or nearly five months. In FYs 2011 and 2013, Congress resorted to full-year CRs.

Stopgap funding bills are therefore the rule rather than the exception. In addition to FY 1997, legislators passed the appropriations bills on time in only three instances in the 47 years since the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act was signed into law with the intent of improving the budget process: FYs 1977, 1989, and 1995. Tardy approval of the bills appears to be one of the few remaining areas of bipartisan consensus. Both divided and unified control by Democrats and Republicans over the House, Senate, and White House, as well as collegial bipartisanship and hyper partisanship, have existed over that timeframe without changing the results. 

The House of Representatives managed to pass nine of the FY 2022 bills before the deadline. The Senate, where a lethargic legislative style is considered the highest form of art, failed to pass a single spending bill prior to the deadline for a third consecutive year. President Biden signed a new CR on Sept. 30, 2021 that will fund the government until Dec. 3, 2021.  

The repeated use of CRs provide the most striking example of the culture of poor governance that has taken root in Congress. 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. CRs also undermine the effectiveness of agencies by creating delays and raising costs for multi-year projects, as well as disrupting the onboarding of new employees. 

Even with the added time provided by a CR to finalize the individual spending bills, legislators frequently resort to passing several appropriations bills together in omnibus packages. The end result is thousands of pages of text, which minimizes the amount of time for members of Congress and the public to digest the contents of the bills. 

Making matters worse, House and Senate rules allowing an appropriate amount of time to review legislation before it is voted on have been repeatedly ignored. This "72 hour rule" has more closely resembled the "24-hours-and-two-seconds rule," under which a bill will be posted at 11:59 p.m. on a Monday, for example, and voted on just after midnight three calendar days later on Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. Needless to say, this is nowhere near enough time to review an omnibus appropriations package consisting of several thousand pages. The House Rules Committee, regardless of which party is in control, often allows few, if any, amendments to these packages, which means there is limited opportunity to trim spending. 

The inability to adhere to the most basic guidelines of the budget process is likely a chief driver of Congress' unpopularity among voters. Only 28 percent of Americans currently approve of the way members of Congress do their jobs, while 69 percent disapprove.

Perhaps legislators will recommit themselves to their core responsibility beginning in 2022 and finally pass the appropriations bills on time once again. However, it seems more likely that senators and representatives will continue moving their woeful streak toward a half century and beyond. 

Sean Kennedy is director of research at Citizens Against Government Waste.

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