After the Mid-Terms, A Budget?

With Election Day just around the corner, the question on the minds of many people is “what’s going to happen in Washington?”

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s elections, members of Congress will return to Capitol Hill for their “lame duck” session with one huge piece of unfinished business – the Fiscal Year 2011 budget.

Fiscal Year 2011 actually began on October 1, 2010 – right before Representatives and Senators went home to campaign. Yet Congress failed to enact any of the twelve separate appropriations bills which keep federal agencies running. Instead, they adopted a Continuing Resolution (CR) as a stop-gap measure. What a CR does is provide funding for areas of the federal government whose specific appropriation has not yet been adopted before the new fiscal year begins – and this year that’s all of them – and funds them at the same level as they were for the previous fiscal year. CRs are temporary, and the current one provides funding through December 3, 2010.

There are probably many reasons that Congress has yet to move forward on the budget – fatigue over the bruising health care debate, a preoccupation with the economy – but one factor is clear; both Democrats and Republicans alike were reluctant to pass a budget that cuts popular programs in an election year.

In his January “State of the Union” address President Obama announced plans to freeze spending for many domestic discretionary programs for three years to control the government’s spiraling debt. These programs include funding for schools in low income neighborhoods, farm subsidies that help stabilize food costs, and child nutrition programs. They also include our nation’s air traffic control network. They fund the federal agencies that ensure workplace safety, perform food inspections, test prescription drugs, and regulate banking and financial institutions. They even fund our national parks. The freeze would exempt, however, funding for “security-related” programs – the Pentagon, veterans affairs, and homeland security.

The proposed freeze is actually a cap on total domestic discretionary spending, and many domestic programs may be cut below the level of a freeze or eliminated all together to provide for increases in higher priority programs. These types of cuts are difficult, particularly in an election year. And instead of making tough choices, Congress punted the budget until after the elections.

So, what is going to happen in Washington? The House Republican leadership has already expressed its intention to cut $100 billion from the domestic side of federal spending, and a GOP “government-in-waiting” could make it difficult for the House Democratic leadership to enact any spending bills this year. Meanwhile, the prospect of gaining control of just one house of Congress could make Senate Republicans even less inclined to work with the current leadership.

Should Democrats maintain control, or even if they don’t, rather than enacting separate spending bills for the various federal agencies, Congress will likely bundle all the appropriations bills into a single (or a couple of smaller) “omnibus” funding packages. These vast documents are not unprecedented. And if history tells us anything, they are often enacted fast, with little debate, and even less understanding of just what exactly is in them.

While all this may make for smart partisan politics and good theater, it does a disservice to the American taxpayer. As stewards of our money, Congress has an obligation to fully exercise its oversight function when it comes to federal spending. It’s ironic, then, that in a year when we choose our elected leaders, they have opted not to lead.