The federal budget process is so broken that lawmakers are now preparing to write spending bills without even knowing how much total cash they’ve got to play with.
It’s a new level of dysfunction for Capitol Hill, and it undermines GOP leaders’ promises to return to "regular order," where spending measures are carefully considered and funding the federal government is a priority.
Without clear spending targets, federal agencies are left in the dark, with only a vague idea of how to plan their budgets. The uncertainty also could complicate plans by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid a government shutdown showdown in the fall.
“It’s a puzzling year. It’s going to be a very difficult year,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who oversees spending for energy and water programs.
Under the law governing the fiscal calendar, the House and Senate are supposed to pass budgets by April 15 that establish a total federal spending level. That figure is then divvied up among 12 appropriations subcommittees, which draft bills to fund the federal government that must be passed by Sept. 30.
Congress hasn’t finished its spending work on time in two decades, but this year’s effort stands out for its struggles, and longtime budget watchers are surprised by how Republicans are moving forward.
Lawmakers are in session for just three more months before the September funding deadline, but Republican leaders are likely still weeks away from releasing a budget. So GOP appropriators say they’ve been left to guess how much money they’ll have for each bill.
“If we can get anything like a notional number, we can get started on next year’s [appropriations],” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the subcommittee that funds the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education departments, told POLITICO recently.
The slapdash start to this year’s appropriations process is leading to informal budget-writing, where lawmakers are working mostly behind closed doors. The first set of public budget hearings is now kicking off across Capitol Hill, but GOP leaders still haven’t given committee leaders a clear picture of their spending levels.
Simpson, echoing other anxious Republican appropriators, said GOP leaders “needed to make that decision in March.”
“There’s a lot of major decisions that have to be made,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Budget and Appropriations committees. “I’m very worried with the truncated process we’ve got for appropriations.”
Neither the House nor the Senate passed a budget on time last year, but Congress had a total spending level to adhere to when drafting bills because of a bipartisan 2015 budget law. This year, stiff spending caps for defense and domestic programs return if Congress does nothing to ease the bite of sequestration.
One option for the GOP is to stick to the current caps when writing spending bills, though bipartisan opposition to those lower levels suggests those bills would likely need to be completely rewritten at the last minute in the fall.
Or lawmakers could decide to ignore those limits entirely. “They could come up with any number they want,” said Stan Collender, a veteran Democratic budget aide now at Qorvis MSLGROUP.
In past years when Congress hasn’t passed a budget, the House and Senate have typically deployed a procedural maneuver to “deem” a top-line spending level. That may be the likeliest course if the fractious GOP is unable to agree on a budget. In the meantime, President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members are hamstrung as they try to plot out their policy agenda.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said last week he didn’t yet have a time frame for dividing up spending levels for his 12 subcommittees.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” the New Jersey Republican said. “We’re going to do our job as we always have.”
There’s no guarantee the process will go smoothly even after appropriators get their formal spending allocations.
Republican leaders are already strategizing to avoid a shutdown, but punting on some of the thorniest spending decisions may not prevent a massive political brawl in the fall.
Conservatives feel emboldened by Trump’s proposed cuts to domestic spending and are pushing the same kind of austerity in Congress’ budget. Defense hawks want to raise military spending even above the levels in Trump’s proposal, which called for a Pentagon budget boost. And without having held a floor vote on the budget, GOP leaders lack a key litmus test for what spending levels the rank and file will support.
Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to shield domestic programs from the sequester. They also are frustrated that the spending process is stalled at least in part because Republicans are using budget reconciliation procedures to try to repeal Obamacare.
“Republicans are playing politics with the budget,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), an Appropriations Committee member. “They’re not doing an honest budget because they want to use the budget process to jam though health care, and one of the consequences is it makes it very hard to write appropriations bills.”
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who oversees agriculture spending, said he will probably start writing his bill soon at the budget sequestration level — a figure that would require some cuts compared to current spending.
“We’ve talked about some hearings. … I’m not sure, we’ll have to see. I have to get a sense of what that top-line is,” Hoeven said. “We want to get going, no doubt about it, because we’d like to go through regular process.”