While still working on tax legislation, Congress now finds itself in an all-too-familiar place: Only days away from a possible government shutdown because spending decisions that should have been made months ago are still up in the air.
Since Fiscal 2018 began Oct. 1, lawmakers have relied on a stop-gap measure (“continuing resolution”) to keep the government open. That measure expires at the end of this week, giving Congress the choice between a partial government shutdown or another continuing resolution that would likely last until later this month.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered emphatic reassurance early this week that there would not be a government shutdown. Taxpayers should hope not because a shutdown costs millions of dollars and accomplishes nothing.
But quibbles among Republicans over another continuing resolution flared Monday night as the House voted to go to conference with the Senate on tax legislation. And uncertainty surrounds a budget meeting scheduled for later this week between President Trump and Democratic leaders after a previous meeting was cancelled.
The reliance on continuing resolutions has its own costs. Such measures generally continue government spending at its previous level, regardless of changing needs and priorities.
Reliance on continuing resolutions also makes it more difficult for federal agencies to plan effectively and work efficiently because it leaves them guessing for months about their funding and congressional priorities for the rest of the fiscal year.
As in past years, lawmakers say they need additional time to figure out those priorities and translate them into funding legislation. But they have already had plenty of time; all of this work could have been completed last summer or in early fall.
Unlike the tax bills that the House and Senate have recently passed, the spending bills for the rest of Fiscal 2018 will require some degree of bipartisan cooperation. The groundwork has hardly been laid for that by the current tax legislation.
Lawmakers in both parties believe the spending caps on certain annual appropriations are too tight. They disagree, however, on what parts of the government are being squeezed too much. Compromise will be needed.
The two sides should work to avoid a shutdown and ensure the passage of responsible spending legislation that does not increase the deficit. That task could be made more difficult by passage of a large deficit-financed tax cut because it will be harder for many lawmakers to argue that increased borrowing is problem to be taken seriously.