Agony, ‘Agita’ and Anguish Over Appropriations

Posted October 3, 2011 at 4:56pm

Getting appropriations enacted by the start of the fiscal year used to be a real point of pride for Representatives and Senators, especially members of the Appropriations committees who considered making that happen to be a large part of their job. Republicans and Democrats on those committees would fight over the substance of the bills, but they all used to work together to pass them.

Anything that prevented appropriations from being enacted in a timely way, including (and sometimes especially) authorization committees taking so long to get their bills done that the full-year funding bills for those departments and agencies had to be delayed, was a major point of contention between Members of the two chambers, and something in which the leadership often had to intervene.

No more. As was agonizingly obvious over the past two weeks, today’s measure for appropriations success and pride is no longer how many are enacted by the start of the fiscal year, but rather whether a government shutdown is avoided when none of the regular spending bills for the coming year have been signed into law.

That’s why, as you watch the process these days, appropriations “agita” — that wonderful Italian word for heartburn that has a much richer meaning, as was explained to me by former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) when we did a presentation together many years ago — is an almost constant feeling in the pit of your stomach because the process that’s supposed to end on Sept. 30 now almost never seems to go away.

How important did it used to be (note the tense) to Congress to get all appropriations enacted by the start of the fiscal year?

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act — the legislation that created the House and Senate Budget committees, the Congressional Budget Office, budget resolutions, reconciliation and the basics of almost everything else that is thought of as the Congressional budget process — probably wouldn’t have become law in 1974 if Congress hadn’t wanted to make it much more likely that appropriations would be enacted on time.

That’s not to say that there weren’t other reasons, such as President Richard Nixon’s intransigence on impoundments. But changes such as the shift in the start of the federal fiscal year from July 1 to Oct. 1 and the timetable for action the law established mostly were intended to make it less likely that Congress would have to resort to one, let alone many, continuing resolutions in any year.

To say the least, it hasn’t worked out as hoped: All appropriations have been enacted by the start of the fiscal year only three times — in 1989, 1995 and 1997 — since the law went into effect.

Up to now the primary reason for the continuing problem with appropriations has been purely logistical. The three extra months Congress thought it was giving itself to work on appropriations by changing the start of the fiscal year was really only four to five weeks, given the August to Labor Day Congressional recess and the fact that religious holidays in September usually take another week or so away from the time available for legislative work.

And, of course, work on appropriations has simply expanded to fill the additional amount of time provided by law.

That’s why there have been suggestions  over the years to change the start of the fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1, to provide Congress with additional time to get appropriations done. Sound familiar? Others have suggested two-year budgeting so the appropriations agita occurs only biennially.

But the events of the past few weeks demonstrate quite clearly that the problem with getting appropriations enacted by the start of the fiscal year has changed substantially. The primary reason for delayed or nonexistent appropriations has now morphed from logistics and scheduling to pure politics.

Rather than being something to avoid at all costs, not having an appropriation in place by the start of the fiscal year now is considered by many on Capitol Hill to be an acceptable outcome and threatening a government shutdown is an appropriate,  even desirable, legislative strategy. Refusing to make a decision on an appropriation until the very last minute and creating agony and agita along the way is thought of as a proper negotiating tool.

Budget process changes such as a fiscal year that starts on Jan. 1 or two-year appropriations will make no difference whatsoever in this environment. The agony about yet another appropriations-related cliffhanger and the agita about another threatened government shutdown will still be a very regrettable part of the annual budget debate whether it happens in late September or December.

This also means that continuing resolutions, which used to be so routine that their adoption and enactment was not a political issue and was never really in doubt, and threatened government shutdowns, which were so theoretical that they were only likely in political fiction, now need to be accepted as the new norm.

Not having a possible shutdown, or avoiding a shutdown without the type of political firestorms and extreme duress we had last April, last week and will likely have again when the current continuing resolution expires Nov. 18, will allow that year’s budget debate to be labeled a success.

This is the kind of situation that in the past would have embarrassed and infuriated Appropriations Committee members and would have generated multiple calls for budget process changes. The fact that it hasn’t means that the change in the way appropriations is done on Capitol Hill is now part of its DNA.

It also means that what has become persistent anguish for many outside Washington, D.C., over the way funding bills are adopted (or not adopted) is going to continue for a while.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”