Did You Miss the “’Bus?”

Congress has passed a budget for Fiscal Year 2012. Did you miss it?

If you did, that’s understandable, given all the noise coming out of Washington in recent weeks about extending the Social Security payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

But Congress actually did pass an FY2012 budget, albeit two and a half months after the fiscal year began on October 1st. It did so by passing an “omnibus” spending package that bundled together nine of the usual 12 annual appropriations bills into a single piece of legislation.

In a normal year Congress passes and the President signs into law 12 separate appropriations bills which together provide operating funds for all the federal agencies. The goal is to enact all 12 by the time the fiscal year begins, but this is seldom the case. When Congress fails to enact any of the appropriations bills by the October 1st deadline, then funding for these agencies is made available under a “continuing resolution,” which provides funding at the same level the agency received during the previous fiscal year. “CRs” as they are known, are considered stopgap measures which keep the government running while Congress completes its budget work.

So most agencies have been operating with funding from a CR until the omnibus was passed. The problem with omnibus spending bills is that they can be so large – this one contains over $900 billion in federal spending for FY2012 – that it’ hard to know exactly what’s in them. Even many members of Congress don’t have a clear picture of what’s in such a bill, and they’re expected to vote on it. So while we do have a FY2012 budget, it didn’t arrive on time, or under the best conditions.

And what of the three other appropriations bills not included in the “omnibus?” They were actually enacted as a package back in November as part of a smaller omnibus – a “minibus.”