How Congress Could Fail Its Annual Budget Test

Last year, GOP Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., celebrated their accomplishments, including the first budget resolution in six years. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

They completed just one time the biggest, and supposedly easiest, test of governing competence they’d set for themselves. Now the Republicans in charge of the Capitol are on the cusp of not even attempting a repeat performance.  

Their tacit decision to walk away from the normal budget process, even before it has started, became clear this week. It’s the strongest evidence yet of the fundamental challenge facing the GOP as it campaigns for continued control of Congress: The party’s internal ideological frictions remain stronger than its yearning to calm an angry electorate by restoring functionality to the legislative gears.  

David Hawkings’ Whiteboard: Here Comes the Budget

Budget 3


Blizzard Whiteout Buries Issue of Red Ink

CBO Director Keith Hall won't be testifying this week, as planned, about the rising budget deficit. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

One of the blizzard’s most important, if unintended, effects was keeping the federal budget deficit buried as a 2016 campaign issue.  

The return of a rising tide of red ink has been almost entirely overlooked by both parties’ candidates in the presidential race and the relatively few competitive contests for Congress. There was a chance that would change this week, when the head of the Congressional Budget Office was supposed to describe his very sobering assessment of the fiscal future in appearances before both congressional budget committees. Instead, after the snowstorm, his Tuesday testimony in the Senate and then Wednesday’s in the House were postponed indefinitely.  

Spending Deal a Likely Capstone for a Prominent House Chairman

Rogers has shepherded a host of omnibus packages since becoming the House's top appropriator. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House’s man of the decade on big budget bills, Harold Rogers, may be in his final days in such a catbird seat.  

The Kentuckian has been the top Republican engineer on four consecutive omnibus packages during his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. Now he’s on the cusp of completing his fifth, belatedly setting spending levels for a fiscal year with 10 weeks already in the rearview mirror. But, if the recent past is a guide, this bill will be the Rogers swan song. He’s still got one more year with the gavel. But it will be a presidential election year, and Congress decided relatively early in 2008 and again in 2012 to call timeout in the budget debate until the White House winner could play a decisive role. Both times, first under Democratic control and then with the Capitol divided, lawmakers went home to campaign after agreeing in September to putting almost all agencies and programs on autopilot until the following March.  

Kasich Labors to Make '90s Hill Win Work for Him Now

Kasich, right, with his Senate counterpart, Pete V. Domenici, left, helped forge a historic budget agreement in the 1990s. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The 2016 presidential field started with a pair of former congressional power players, one from each party, with singular lawmaking achievements on their record.  

Jim Webb, who engineered a big GI Bill of Rights expansion as a Virginia senator almost a decade ago, has now slipped off to Democratic oblivion. It’s not clear how much longer John Kasich, the Republican with an even bigger legislative accomplishment under his belt, will survive in a contest where standing out as the outsider has become the most rewarding approach. Kasich has the deepest governance résumé in the GOP field. His five years as governor of a fiscally solid Ohio were preceded by almost two decades in Congress, where he was a main architect of the only plan that’s balanced the federal books since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.  

One Day in, Climactic Month Slips Into Pope-Inspired Procrastination

Harry Reid and other congressional leaders are looking at a number of deadlines this month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

How easy it is to procrastinate during the first month of a new semester, knowing none of the difficult assignments are really due before the end of the term — and especially when there are so many tempting distractions on campus.  

So it is again this fall, at the Capitol as much as in college. Which is why Congress, back in town only one day, is already looking ahead to a shortened September that’s long on theatrics but almost bereft of nose-to-the-grindstone legislative work.  

GOP Eyes Audacious Escape Plan From Policy Gridlock This Fall

A stormy fall is assured for Congress. (Bill Clark/ CQ Roll Call)

Even by the standards of today’s Capitol, where doing important business at or after the last possible moment is the default setting, an exceptionally long and disparate roster of battles and deadlines lies ahead this fall.  

Far from conceding they’ll be strategically paralyzed by the welter of polarizing conflict, however, senior Republicans increasingly boast how the situation after Labor Day creates an ideal venue for a big accomplishment by Christmas.  

Hill's Spending on Itself Set on Cautious Course

The Capitol Dome's restoration is funded in the legislative branch appropriations bill dealing with congressional spending. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The end of the fiscal year is still a dozen weeks in the future, but already a shutdown showdown looks inevitable. For circumstantial evidence, look no further than the floor schedules for this month. None of the 12 annual spending bills will get a shot at passing the Senate, while the House will give up on the appropriations calendar with four measures in limbo.  

But those who work on Capitol Hill can breathe much more easily than many. They, at least, already have a strong measure of certainty about the coming year. Bills setting the budgets for running Congress and its satellite agencies in the coming year have already been endorsed, in remarkably similar form, by the entire House and the Senate Appropriations Committee.  

In Budget of Billions, a Fight Over Pennies for Metro

Congress' proposed cut to Metro funding would affect hundreds of thousands of commuters. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

When tracking this year’s inevitable budget crisis, which is showing every early sign of climaxing 16 weeks from now in another shutdown showdown, the Hill community may want to keep Metro in mind.  

Even the most seasoned members, staffers, lobbyists and reporters tend to have their eyes glaze over when confronted with appropriations numbers expressed in the multiples of billions and adding up to more than a trillion — so much of it for weapons systems, farm programs, school aid, medical research, prison construction and the like that’s way removed from their own lives.