Congress is again down to the wire on spending legislation for the current fiscal year, which is already half over. Returning to Washington after a 2-week recess, lawmakers need to take action before a stop-gap measure expires at midnight on Friday.
The alternative would be a shutdown for much of the government, wasting tax dollars and further diminishing public confidence in elected officials’ ability to take care of their fundamental budgetary responsibilities.
This spending legislation should have been approved well before last Oct. 1, when Fiscal 2017 began. But Congress has only approved one of the twelve annual appropriations bills that are needed to keep the government running.
Instead, Congress has relied — as it has in each year since 1997 — on stop-gap measures known as “continuing resolutions” that generally continue funding for federal programs at current levels, regardless of changing needs and priorities. This reliance on temporary measures also make it difficult for federal agencies and departments to plan and work efficiently.
In addition, lawmakers now find themselves at the start of a new annual budget cycle without having completed their work on the last one.
Congress passed its first stop-gap measure for 2017 in late September, with only two days to spare before the start of the fiscal year. As requested by the incoming Trump administration, Congress in December passed a second stop-gap — the one that will expire on Friday — rather than trying at that time to approve final spending legislation.
Administration officials have complicated the current situation by pushing hard in recent days for higher defense spending and initial funding for a wall along the border with Mexico. There is also uncertainty over appropriations for continued Affordable Care Act subsidies that are widely considered essential to avoid serious disruptions in the health care system.
To keep the government open, Congress this week could approve a final appropriations package for 2017, fall back on another continuing resolution, or put together some combination of those options.
Certainly a shutdown should be avoided. Ideally lawmakers and the president will quickly wrap up their work on 2017 spending legislation without worsening the large budget deficits that are already projected for the years ahead. This could clear the way for a more orderly and thoughtful approach to the Fiscal 2018 budget.