Congress' penchant for unpunctuality
© Greg Nash

Reviewing the hottest trends of any year is sure to induce nostalgia, as well as a serving as a reminder of how much time has passed. For example, in 1996, Americans cruised the web using Netscape Navigator, the Spice Girls were burning up the charts, and the hottest holiday toy was the Tickle Me Elmo.

One other relic from that year stands out: Congress completed the appropriations bills for fiscal year (FY) 1997 on time.

In each fiscal year since then, Congress has resorted to passing a continuing resolution (CR), which provides the same funding level as the prior year, in order to buy time to complete the appropriations process. Congress has passed 119 CRs since FY 1998, averaging 5.3 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 a full-year CR. Members of Congress therefore have failed for 24 consecutive years to perform in a timely manner one of the most basic aspects of their job, which is spelled out in Article I, Section 9, Clause 7: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law …”

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Indeed, CRs have long been the rule rather than the exception. In addition to FY 1997, legislators passed the appropriations bills on time in only three instances over the past 44 years: FYs 1977, 1989, and 1995. Tardy passage 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 presidency have existed over that timeframe without changing the results.

In FY 2021, the House of Representatives came close to performing its task on time, passing 10 of 12 bills prior Oct. 1, 2020. However, for the second consecutive year, the Senate failed to pass a single spending bill prior to the deadline. The failure of the two chambers to promptly complete their work resulted in yet another short-term CR, which was technically signed by President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE one hour into a government shutdown, on Oct. 1, 2020, and provided funding through Dec. 11, 2020. As usual, the negotiations over a new CR remain as difficult as always, perhaps even more so given the results of the Nov. 3 elections and the ongoing debate over a new stimulus package.

The frequent use of CRs demonstrates remarkably poor governance. One big downside is they neutralize the government’s significant buying power. Instead of paying in advance for bulk orders at lower prices, short-term funding bills force agencies to purchase fewer items at a time, driving up prices. Stopgap measures also undermine the effectiveness of agencies by creating delays and raising costs for multi-year projects, as well as disrupting the hiring 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, the House and Senate rules allowing an appropriate amount of time to review legislation before it is voted on have gone by the wayside. This “three-day 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 Tuesday, for example, and voted on just after midnight three calendar days on Thursday at 12:01 a.m. Needless to say, this is an unreasonable interpretation of “three days” and not nearly enough time to review an omnibus appropriations package consisting of several thousand pages.

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The inability to adhere to the most basic guidelines of the budget process is one reason for Congress’ unpopularity among voters. Only 19 percent of Americans currently approve of the way members of Congress do their jobs. Perhaps the message that this behavior is not acceptable will force legislators to recommit themselves to their core responsibility beginning in 2021 and finally pass the appropriations bills on time once again.

However, given their track record, senators and representatives will likely miss yet another deadline. It seems more likely one might discover a Tickle Me Elmo in the back of the closet.

Sean Kennedy is Director of Research for Citizens Against Government Waste.