Missing fiscal deadlines has become an unofficial Congressional standard operating procedure, yet the one thing all Members seem to agree about is their disapproval of the trend. During the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 budget and appropriations cycle alone, there were two government shutdowns and five continuing resolutions; all while Congress dug in on controversial policy issues and held the must-pass spending package hostage. Nearly half the spending year was over before the final agreement was reached in March.
Now a bipartisan, bicameral congressional committee is looking at ways to restore order to the fiscal process. The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, established through the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, is holding five or more hearings to discuss reform proposals. Co-Chaired by Reps. Steve Womack (R-AR) and Nita Lowey (D-NY), topics include timeliness, enforcement and bipartisanship.
The most recent hearing, Members Day, included testimony from House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). In a rare case of agreement, Ryan and Pelosi each testified that enacting two-year budgets could limit government showdowns. The rationale would be to decrease the number of annual deadlines Congress faces and add more long-term predictability to spending decisions. As it stands now, short-term continuing resolutions lead to rushed negotiations that put Congressional Leadership in charge rather than appropriators with expertise on the spending bills. Ryan stated, “I’m the person who gets the power.” He continued, “I don’t want it. It’s too concentrated.”
Additional proposals for mending the appropriations process include two-year spending deals and staggering spending bills so that half are considered each year. While there is agreement that two-year budget and appropriations agreements could help alleviate the problem of missing annual spending deadlines, critics argue that these agreements would prevent the public from holding House Members accountable, as they only serve two-year terms. The public’s ability to lobby annually on specific issues would also be limited as a result of a two-year timeline.
While Members of the House have found common ground in theory, the Senate has fulfilled newly minted Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL)’s promise to pass all FY 2019 appropriations bills out of committee before the Fourth of July Recess through bipartisan agreements.
Noting that this is not only the first time in 30 years such a goal has been met but also a demonstration of the Senate’s ability to restore regular order, Shelby cautioned, “we would be wise to remain mindful that our work is not complete until all of the bills are signed into law.” Meanwhile, the House abruptly cancelled its consideration of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies (Labor/H) bill at the end of June and promised to resume consideration after the Fourth of July recess. Labor/H is the largest spending bill after Defense, and arguably the most controversial. House appropriators still have a way to go to achieve the bipartisanship demonstrated by their Senate counterparts.
While Congress continues to work on spending levels for FY 2019, a November 30, 2018 deadline for a final report and legislative proposal from the Joint Select Committee is fast approaching. The report must have majority support among Republicans and Democrats and has the potential to chart the course for the budget and appropriations process going forward.