Senate Punts On Appropriations Bills

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In football terms, it was fourth and long… very long. The chances of passing appropriation bills to fund government agencies for the current fiscal year, which began on October 1st, were slim. So this week Congress did what they have done many times in the past. They punted.

On Thursday, the Senate approved a bill previously approved by the House that would extend funding at last year’s level from November 21 to December 20. The president signed the bill, avoiding for now a government shutdown.

In July, there were hopes that appropriation bills could be passed without a shutdown crisis when the House and Senate agreed to raise existing spending caps for overall Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations by $171 billion. The extra money, it was thought, would grease the skids for deals on the 12 individual appropriation bills. That hasn’t happened. 

House and Senate appropriators have failed over more than three months since the July agreement to agree on how to allocate funding among the 12 annual bills. It is not surprising that the two parties have different priorities and that those priorities are reflected in their respective allocation levels. It is surprising, however, that compromise on such a basic issue has not been reached despite action-inducing deadlines.

It’s hard to be optimistic about what comes next. Not only have appropriators failed to agree on funding levels for the 12 individual bills, they have also failed to resolve a disagreement with the president over funding for a Mexican border wall – the issue that precipitated a partial government shutdown earlier this year.

Moreover, the new deadline of December 20th falls during a time when the House could be considering a vote on whether to impeach President Trump. How that vote will affect negotiations over funding levels and the border wall is anybody’s guess. 

From a strictly fiscal point of view, keeping appropriations at 2019 levels prevents the agreed upon cap increase from taking effect. In fact, the 2019 funding level is actually higher than the 2020 level was supposed to be if the caps had been kept in place. 

Still, operating under a series of temporary “continuing resolutions” is a terrible way to run the government. It hobbles agency planning, encourages arbitrary decision-making and highlights political dysfunction. 

They executed the punt but the situation has not changed. It’s still fourth and long.

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