The budget mess in Congress

As we count down to midnight Monday night and a possible government shutdown, remember that we are fighting over how to fund the government for only a few months.  Not for a full fiscal year, but just until mid-October under a funding plan from Democrats and to mid-November from the GOP.  

It is symptomatic of the budget dysfunction that has enveloped the Congress for many years.

It truly doesn’t matter which party you support or which political party you blame for the current budget impasse in Washington, D.C.  The budget process is a mess, it has been a mess for years, and both sides are trying to convince you the other party is completely responsible for the troubles that might lead to a government shutdown.

First, why are we in this battle in the first place? Because neither party has done its job in the House and Senate on the budget.

And that has been true for years.

Congress has not finished its budget work by October 1 (the start of the new fiscal year) since 1996; lawmakers haven’t finished their work on time on the 12 individual spending bills that make up the budget since 1994.

So what happened this year?

Both the House and Senate approved a “budget resolution,” a non-binding measure which sets out the framework for the dozen spending bills that must be finished by the end of the fiscal year, September 30.

The House voted on a GOP budget resolution on March 21; the Senate followed two days later on a version from Democrats.

It was the first time in four years that the Senate had approved a budget resolution, a point that Republicans had made often in pointing the finger of blame at Democrats for the lack of action on the budget.

But once the Senate acted this year, Republicans in the Senate repeatedly blocked efforts to set up official House-Senate negotiations to work out a final spending blueprint.

Even without a finalized non-binding budget resolution (it does not require the signature of the President), the House and Senate can still get the work done on the twelve spending bills that fund the federal government – but it takes time and effort. And some discipline.

This year, the House passed four of those 12 budget bills. The Senate approved none of them.

I literally laughed out loud when I listened to lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol last week say they “did not have enough time” to complete their budget work this year, resulting in the need for a stop gap budget plan to keep the government running.

I’m not sure what calendar they use – but mine shows a lot of wasted time.

For example, the last budget bill approved by the House this year was a defense spending bill on July 24. It is now September 30. You can do the math on how many days went by without action on any budget bills.

The Senate never approved one budget bill this year. The Senate didn’t approve any of them in 2012. No budget bills were brought up before October 1 in 2011, either. The same thing happened in 2010.

It would seem that the first job of any Congress is to approve the budget by which the federal government is funded. But standard operating procedure is to do much of that work after the October 1 deadline.

Congressional spending and health care

Much of the focus over the last week has been on Republican demands to block money for the implementation of the Obama health law.

But could it have happened in a different and more direct manner? Oh yes.

GOP lawmakers in the House had the chance to address the health law in the budget bill that covers health spending by the government – but never did.

Known as the “Labor-HHS” bill, that measure could have been Ground Zero for any GOP assault on the Obama health law, both in terms of cutting money and/or measures to prohibit the spending of any money on the implementation of the law.

But Republicans in the House never brought that bill to the House floor in 2013.

In fact, the panel chaired by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) never even released the subcommittee draft of that measure.

And that’s nothing new.

The same thing happened in 2012. No bill issued by the GOP in the House.

The same thing also happened in 2011.

And back in 2010, the last time Democrats were in charge of the House, they never rolled out that spending bill, either.

The last time the Labor-HHS bill hit the House floor was in 2009, a few months after the Obama health law had been approved.

Don’t worry, it’s nothing new

My father likes to tell the story of what happened on the budget back in 1962-63. Even though the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, the spending bills didn’t get done. There were temporary budgets with questions about whether the government would get funded.

And what was the holdup?

The octogenarian who ran the House Appropriations Committee didn’t want to walk over to the other side of the Capitol to meet with the octogenarian who ran the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In 1974, the Congress approved major reforms to the budget process, but since then, the budget has been completed by October 1 only a handful of times.  That’s almost 40 years ago.

Spending and the national debt

Lurking on the horizon is another gigantic budget fight, this time over the national debt.

There are a number of Republicans who argue that the debt limit should not be raised at all, in an effort to force some fiscal sanity on Uncle Sam.

They argue – and have numbers to back them up – that President Obama’s current budget plan would only add trillions to the debt, over $5 trillion in ten years according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But the problem is, Republican budget plans would also require an increase in the debt limit, just not as much.

The budget blueprint from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) that was approved earlier this year by the House would not balance the books until 2023 – before then, it runs up $1.2 trillion in new debt.

That was a lot better than the budget plan rolled out in 2012 by Ryan – his own figures show it would have increased the debt by $4 trillion over 10 years and would not have been in balance for well over 25 years.

So, both parties have budget plans that would add to the deficit and debt; Republicans would simply do it at a slower rate than the Democrats.

Those are some of the facts.

If you think one party is to blame, more power to you.

But what I have watched in the Congress since I was a House Page in 1980 tells a different story.