May 25, 2017

Almost Forgotten: The 2018 Budget Process

Amid all the debate in Washington on health care, taxes and other things, the congressional budget process for the coming year is already behind schedule and seems to have almost been forgotten.

Congress has yet to even consider a Fiscal 2018 budget resolution, despite a statutory deadline of April 15 for having one in place. The congressional budget committees are still reportedly weeks away from even getting down to business on preparation of a resolution.

For its part, the Trump administration released only a partial spending plan in mid-March that lacked overall fiscal targets, and is promising a more complete plan later. The president has also suggested deep tax cuts but released only a vague outline of what he has in mind.

Congressional leaders say they want to get back to “regular order” in the appropriations process, a laudable goal. They voiced similar hopes last year, but the process broke down again, as it has so many times in the past.

As a result, lawmakers did not pass most of the necessary spending legislation for the current fiscal year until last week -- seven months after the fiscal year began.

So for most of Fiscal 2017, Congress has been relying on stopgap legislation that generally continued current spending levels, regardless of changing needs and priorities. This practice makes it difficult for government departments and agencies to operate efficiently, sign contracts and make needed personnel changes.

In addition, last week’s omnibus bill rolled nearly all of the appropriations bills into a single measure, a practice that makes it virtually impossible for lawmakers to scrutinize all of the spending plans before voting on them.

“This is not a process we want to continue,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said. “Let’s all work together to do these appropriations bills one at a time.”

Yet time for a more thoughtful, orderly budget process for Fiscal 2018 is already running short, as some frustrated lawmakers in both parties have pointed out. The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

By then, under the regular budget process, lawmakers should have completed their work on a dozen separate appropriations bills.

There has been no forward motion on such legislation, however, because there is no Fiscal 2018 budget resolution. And there may not be one for some time. If Congress adopts a Fiscal 2018 budget resolution before passing a health care bill, the fast-track procedure for that bill written into the 2017 budget resolution protecting it from a Senate filibuster will be lost. A long delay in producing an health care plan acceptable to both the House and Senate will produce a long delay in taking up a Fiscal 2018 budget resolution.

Some fear Congress is already on track for a money-wasting government shutdown over spending plans this fall, a concern that was hardly eased by President Trump’s recent suggestion that “a good shutdown” might help overcome opposition to his 2018 proposals.

Congress should try to avoid the risks of inefficient stop-gap measures and a fall shutdown by getting to work as quickly as possible on one of its most fundamental responsibilities: Approving responsible spending plans for the coming year in a timely way.