Grant Bosse: A helpful glossary for the next entirely predictable fiscal crisis
Well. That was pointless. At least we get to do it again in a few months.
When we do revisit both the federal budget and the debt limit this winter, it would be helpful to have properly defined the terms bring discussed. I highly doubt this will change anyone’s mind about how to proceed, but it might let you cut through the torrent of fiscal ignorance coming from the mouths of the people we’ve elected to make these decisions. It might also help you realize how dysfunctional the budget process has gotten.
The Congressional Budget Act of 1974, with some amendments over the past 40 years, sets out the process by which Congress raises and spends money. The president is required to submit his budget request, including spending in every department, tax rate changes, and policy changes that would change either, on or before the first Monday in February. This year, the president handed in his homework in May.
The House and Senate then debate a budget resolution, which sets spending limits within each section of the federal government. Members debating amendments to the budget will claim that their amendments add $10 billion for Head Start or cut $3 billion from farm subsidies, but the budget doesn’t make these specific changes. It only shifts the overall amount of money set aside within each major program area. The budget is a planning document, used by Congress to set the parameters for the appropriations process. It does not raise or spend a single dollar, and never even goes to the president’s desk.
Congress can raise and spend money without first passing a budget each year, but it’s much harder to do. It’s a bit like trying to agree to the rules of a game after you’ve started playing.
With or without a budget resolution guiding them, the powerful House and Senate Appropriations committees do the line by line work of spending our money for us. Twelve separate appropriations bills detail exactly how much each federal agency gets to spend, and how they have to spend it. Each bill is huge and complicated, but it’s at least possible to track federal spending. Each provision is subject to debate and amendment, and we can hold our elected leaders responsible for spending too much or two little on our top priorities.
The federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1, so Congress and the President have until Sept. 30 to reach agreement on the 12 appropriations bills that fund much of the federal government.
Shockingly, Congress and the president often have trouble reaching such agreements. As the Sept. 30 deadline approaches, any unfinished appropriations bills are lumped together in an omnibus appropriations bill. The “Bus” picks up some strange passengers along its route, as representatives and senators take this opportunity to tuck their pet provisions into “must pass” legislation. The other popular analogy is a “Christmas tree” with unrelated ornaments dangling from every branch of government.
The omnibus is far too large and complex for the press, government watchdogs, or congressional staff to track in any meaningful way. Sure, you might sometimes find a Bridge to Nowhere to fight about, but much more questionable spending sneaks through under the radar, or as earmarks in the accompanying committee report, which isn’t even published before the vote.
Omnibus appropriations is a lousy way to decide federal spending priorities, but it can and has gotten much worse.
In the absence of appropriations, Congress can essentially put the federal government on cruise control (not to be confused with Cruz Control). A continuing resolution extends current spending authority for a short time, or for the entire fiscal year.
These bills don’t even contain the line by line spending, just a congressional directive to keep doing what you’re doing, plus or minus inflation adjustments or budget control haircuts.
A CR is Congress’s decision to not make any decisions. Congress has managed to complete the appropriations process on time just four times since fiscal year 1977, requiring at least a short-term CR every other year. We’ve been pretty much running things by continuing resolution throughout the Obama administration.
Not all federal programs are funded through appropriations. Entitlements like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are designated as mandatory, which just means we spend a predetermined amount on each unless Congress changes the law. Interest on the debt in also mandatory.
Since these programs are scheduled to grow automatically, any attempt to control spending is labeled a cut. Congress has shown little willingness to even talk about entitlement reform, and mandatory spending now accounts for nearly two-thirds of all federal spending.
This is everything else, from the 8th Air Force to welfare. If Congress doesn’t approve some sort of spending package or extension, agencies lose their authority to spend our money. But we exempt much of government from the shutdown, including most defense, law enforcement and public health programs. That’s why our aircraft carriers didn’t come back to port when the government shut down three weeks ago.
During the recent shutdown, we briefly stumbled back into a rational budget process. House Republicans started approving discrete appropriations for several popular programs.
Senate Democrats called this a piecemeal approach and a stunt. It’s actually how we should be setting spending priorities.
In this brief window between budget showdowns, the House and Senate could restore sanity to the appropriations process by debating spending agency by agency.
(Grant Bosse is editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy, and a senior fellow at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.)