Appropriations Update: Stopgaps and Lame Ducks

Managing to perform below the already-low bar set by recent precedent, Congress will not finish work on any FY 2011 appropriations bills before the election. No spending bill has managed to reach the floor of either chamber, representing a glacial pace even by congressional standards.

This means we will begin the new fiscal year on October 1 with no spending plan. Enacting a short-term continuing resolution (CR) to maintain funding of federal operations will be the last major piece of business before Congress adjourns for the pre-election campaign push.

Senate leaders today filed for cloture on a bill that could be the vehicle for a stopgap funding measure, which means floor consideration can occur next week. There had been some anxiety that a dispute over potential riders to the CR could derail it, perhaps even forcing a government shutdown.

The White House requested some $20 billion in extra spending including $5.7 billion for Pell Grants, $1.9 billion for the administration’s “Race to the Top” education initiative, and over $4 billion to settle long-standing lawsuits from minority farmers. Many lawmakers object to this added funding. Concerns about a showdown (and shutdown) appear to have diminished as insiders predict a CR relatively “clean” from extra provisions.

Passage of a short-term stopgap measure will set the stage for FY 2011 appropriations to be considered during a post-election “lame duck” session. The most likely result will be an omnibus package rolling up most, if not all, spending bills. This could produce a very interesting dynamic if Republicans realize the electoral gains that many predict on Election Day. They may prefer to postpone completion of the process until after January when the new Congress is seated. The issue of earmarks will also come back early next year as a ban on the practice by the House GOP expires.

The problems with the process underscore the need for fundamental budget reform. The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform will offer a blueprint for improving the process in a forthcoming report.