Appropriations: A Train Wreck? No, Worse

Even in best years the congressional appropriations process usually results in a proverbial train wreck. And this year is shaping up to be such a bad year that news headline writers may have to come up with a new description. The spending process which begins this week is fraught with bumps and unanswered questions.

First, House Democrats have been unable to reach a deal among themselves on a Fiscal 2011 budget resolution. The Senate Budget Committee, on the other hand, passed a budget blueprint in April. Since there won't be an official budget reconciliation process this year, the budget's main purpose is to set an overall discretionary spending level for the year. There's the rub. The House is likely to "deem" an overall spending plan that is some $7 billion below President Obama's budget plan. The Senate Budget Committee budget is $3 billion higher than the House. If a budget resolution had been adopted, those numbers would be the same. Without a budget resolution, each chamber can go on its merry way, spending up to its ceiling. A deal on discretionary spending would not be reached until the end of the process when the two Houses will have to agree on programmatic spending levels.

Then, there is the issue of whether there even will be a formal appropriations process as called for by law. Since 2010 is an election year, members will want to leave Washington early in the fall to go home and campaign. They may punt spending decisions until after the election, during a lame duck session. At that point, retiring and defeated members will be making key budget decisions.

Whatever happens, House Democrats are going to have to waive an obscure budget point of order to be able to even leave for the July 4th recess. Section 310(f) of the 1974 Budget Act prohibits the House from considering a resolution calling for an adjournment period lasting more than three days during the month of July unless it has completed work on its annual appropriations bills.

In short, the budget process is a mess and must be fixed. Spending decisions are being made on an ad hoc and haphazard basis. That is why the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform is preparing a proposal for a new budget process that would bring order and discipline to this mess. Its report will be issued later this year.