Consequences of a Broken Budget Process

Special Guests: Molly Reynolds

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This week on Facing the Future, we talked with Molly Reynolds, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. With a partial shutdown looming on Friday, January 19, we discussed why Congress never passes its annual appropriations bills on time, the problems this creates, and whether there are any remedies. 

“The purpose of having a predictable orderly budget process,” Reynolds said, “is because it allows Congress to fulfill one of its foremost constitutional responsibilities, which is the power of the purse. A predictable process would also allow federal agencies to actually effectuate the spending decisions that Congress makes –  the steady hand to know how much money they are getting and when to expect it.” 

“But when the budget process breaks down,” she said, “we lose the ability of Congress to exercise that constitutional responsibility and, from the executive branch, we lose all sense of predictability, all sense of being able to plan and use the resources that Congress gives it in a responsible and predictable way. So you put both of those things together, and you end up with Congress not fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities, and also on a day to day basis with agencies really lacking the ability to plan and to be as responsible as I think we want them to be with the public’s resources.”

When Congress does not get its appropriation bills passed on time, it can use a “continuing resolution” (CR) to avoid a funding lapse, commonly referred to as a shutdown. The government is currently operating under a CR that extends some department and agency funding through January 19 and others through February 2.

According to Reynolds, “keeping the lights on is a good way to think about it. And this is preferable to a government shutdown. But continuing resolutions also aren’t a great way to govern because they usually operate for just a short period of time. They add even more uncertainty into the process. And then for agencies themselves, there are often a lot of limits. They generally can’t start new programs or new initiatives that they didn’t have going in the previous year. And so if you’re an agency, and you really want to be able to respond to the changing needs of the country, you’re really locked in to whatever choices that Congress had made in the previous year. The longer you’re operating under a CR, the harder it is for you to have that flexibility to make those changes and make new choices that you know reflect the changing needs of the country.”

Reynolds does not see any quick fixes to the budget process. She told us, “I like to say that Congress’s rules aren’t magic. They can’t force agreement where underlying substantive agreement doesn’t exist. And so I think that the kind of challenges in the current budget process are the symptom of broader challenges in the legislative process. In the current environment, it’s so hard to do other things. But appropriations bills still have this must pass character to them, because if we don’t pass them then the government shuts down. They become the target for so many other political conflicts. And so sometimes I think of this as a game of whack-a-mole like you’ve whacked down all the other moles in the legislative process and the appropriations process is the last one standing. So it’s the one that gets sidelined by fights on the House floor, about amendments related to culture war issues. In a different previous world  if the House majority party wanted to have those legislative fights, they would have them on something else. But now they only ever happen on appropriations bills. And so I think in that sense it really is that the problem is the politics, not so much the process.”

Hear more on Facing the Future. I host the program each week on WKXL in Concord N.H., and it is also available via podcast. Join us as we discuss issues relating to national fiscal policy with budget experts, industry leaders, and elected officials. Past broadcasts are available here. You can subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Pandora, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or with an RSS feed. Follow Facing the Future on Facebook, and watch videos from past episodes on The Concord Coalition YouTube channel.

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