Appropriations Update: Will We Get a Spending Plan for Christmas?

Once again, Congress earlier this week had to pass a short-term stop-gap spending measure to keep the lights on. The House and Senate passed a continuing resolution (CR) keeping the federal government funded at current levels through December 18. The resolution was needed because Congress has passed none—that’s right none—of the twelve Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations measures.

Since the funding lasts until only December 18, it still remains unclear how the House, the Senate and President Obama will handle spending issues for Fiscal Year 2011, which began October 1. Democrats would like to pass an omnibus spending bill that would allow members to adjust funding for some high-priority programs. As a fallback, they would choose a year-long CR. However, Republicans would like a CR which keeps the federal government funded until sometime early next year. Since they will control the House starting in January, another short-term funding bill would allow Republicans to have more influence over spending decisions.

Whatever Congress decides, one thing is clear: this is no way for the United States government to make major fiscal decisions. This process does not allow Congress to make decisions about which programs should receive increases and which should be cut. Spending levels will not be the result of fiscal decisions; they will be made based on whether the House and Senate can find the votes to pass legislation. Members will be presented with the CR or omnibus bill on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

This broken process and the poor fiscal decisions that result from it is the reason why the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform spent two years studying the budget process. The commission last month issued its second report, Getting Back in the Black, which recommends changes in the budget process that would help avoid such fiscal disasters in the future. If adopted, those recommendations would go a long way toward fixing the broken federal budget process.

It would be a great stocking stuffer for all of us if Congress could get its act together and adopt a rational spending plan. An even better present would be budget process reform that makes the dysfunctional process a thing of Christmas past.