Halfway Through Fiscal 2017, Congress Still Figuring Out the Plan

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Many Americans are no doubt struggling to understand some of the latest news from Washington about the federal budget. That’s because elected officials in Washington are approaching their work on the Fiscal 2018 budget with some long-unfinished business: They have yet to agree on most of their spending plans for the current fiscal year.

That year is now more than half over. Congress has approved only one of the 12 regular appropriations bills that were supposed to have passed before Fiscal 2017 began Oct. 1. This is a poor omen for the 2018 budget work that is supposed to be completed in the coming months. It also raises the possibility of a costly government shutdown later this month.

Instead of getting more 2017 spending bills passed, Congress has been relying on stop-gap measures known as “continuing resolutions” that generally continue funding for federal programs at current levels — regardless of changing needs, new priorities and the government’s growing debt.

In addition, the failure of Congress to make timely final budget decisions makes it difficult for federal agencies and departments to plan effectively, anticipate appropriate staffing levels and commit to important projects and purchases.

The continuing resolution now in force was approved by the last Congress late last year and is set to expire April 28. Lawmakers must take some sort of action by then to keep the government funded and avoid a partial shutdown. They could approve spending legislation for the rest of the current fiscal year, fall back on another continuing resolution, or some combination of those two options.

President Trump has complicated matters with controversial requests for $30 billion in additional defense funding and $3 billion to start work on a wall along the Mexican border and beef up homeland security. Republican congressional leaders indicated last week, however, that they were inclined to wait on those proposals until after the basic spending legislation had passed.  

Procrastinating on essential appropriations work has often resulted in massive catch-all bills, put together hastily and requiring lawmakers to vote on things they have not had adequate time to study.

Unfortunately, history seems to be repeating itself with the Fiscal 2017 spending legislation. Congress is scheduled to be in recess next week and the following week, so time for carefully considered decisions by April 28 is running short.

Frustration has been building in some quarters. CQ recently quoted Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.): “We’ve got to get out of this never-ending honking at your own taillights, which is really what’s going on on Capitol Hill with this really broken budget process.”

Lawmakers and the president should focus on serious bipartisan discussions and avoid the temptation to engage in fiscal brinksmanship and threats of a government shutdown.

Congress should also resolve to do better with its work on the Fiscal 2018 budget; Americans shouldn’t have to worry about the government shutting down this fall, either.

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