Lawmakers made noteworthy progress last week on spending bills for the coming year, at least as far as timeliness is concerned. Congress approved three bills and negotiators announced a bipartisan agreement on a much larger package that could avoid a government shutdown in October.
Legislative leaders are pleased and proud, noting that work on spending bills now is ahead of schedule compared to many years in the past.
“This represents a return to our most basic responsibility around here: passing appropriations bills,” Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters as the first three bills neared passage. “It really is a step in the right direction, and we’re going to build on this.”
It should be noted, however, that some spending legislation is still being delayed until December, more than two months after the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year.
In addition, a partial government shutdown this fall remains a possibility, with President Trump sending mixed signals on whether he would accept a short-term deal that does not include the level of funding he has requested for his proposed border wall.
Even more troubling, though, is the fiscal backdrop to this budgeting cycle: Not only have lawmakers and President Trump failed to start reining in federal borrowing, they are embracing larger deficits with alarming enthusiasm.
The Treasury Department released a depressing reminder of the big fiscal picture last week when it reported that the federal deficit for the first 11 months of Fiscal 2018 totaled more than $898 billion. The comparable figure from a year ago was $666 billion.
The White House itself has projected a return to trillion-dollar deficits starting with the current fiscal year. This new borrowing will all be added to the current debt, which is approaching $21.5 trillion.
Under the regular budget process, Congress is supposed to approve 12 spending bills to provide so-called “discretionary” funding for everything from defense to environmental protection to law enforcement.
But the budget process has broken down repeatedly in recent years, with Congress falling back on stop-gap measures that keep the government running by generally continuing current levels of spending.
Often lawmakers end up passing huge omnibus spending bills months after the new fiscal year has started, making it difficult for federal departments and agencies to operate efficiently.
After a particularly poor performance in the last budget cycle — the final spending decisions weren’t made until the fiscal year was half over — congressional leaders promised to do better.
They may at least partially succeed as far as timely passage of legislation is concerned. But it appears that this is being made possible in part because Congress and Trump are content to watch deficits rise rapidly.
Republicans, meanwhile, are considering still more deficit-financed tax cuts. On Thursday the House Ways and Means Committee passed a legislative package that, among other things, would expand and extend last year’s tax cuts. Fortunately, Senate passage of that legislation is considered unlikely.
It would be a good thing, of course, to avoid a government shutdown and provide timely funding of federal departments and agencies this fall.
But elected officials have a responsibility to look beyond just short-term funding decisions and start figuring out how to slow and eventually reverse the rapid growth of the federal debt.