What happens when the government shuts down?
A non-news flash: The process Congress uses to to piece together the federal budget is in massive disarray.
Maybe you’ve noticed something called the partial government shutdown, which could have been avoided if Congress had handled the finances of this country with the same care that you apply to managing your household budget. But it doesn’t, and hasn’t for years.
▪ Congress hasn’t passed all of its spending bills on time since 1997.
▪ From fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2016, nary a single appropriations bill passed by the deadline.
▪ In fact, Congress has managed to pass all of its appropriations bills on time on only four occasions since the mid-70s.
For sure, Congress gets that there’s a problem. It’s just that — and this will surprise exactly nobody — they can’t agree on solutions.
Last year, congressional leaders created something called the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. The panel was bipartisan with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
No one was holding their breath, but some hoped the committee might actually do something. Alas, it didn’t. The committee basically struck out with the bases loaded, another victim of Washington’s senseless, reckless partisanship, even with $1 trillion deficits looming.
“I am extremely disappointed,” Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, the Republican co-chair, declared.
“Deeply disappointing,” New York Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the Democratic co-chair, said.
At least they agreed on that much.
Now, multiple efforts are underway to resurrect some of the good ideas the committee kicked around before going bust. Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican, is working with Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island on one such proposal. Their plan falls under the category of “helpful,” but falls well short of panacea status.
Still, under the circumstances, any improvements would help.
The featured attraction of the Blunt-Whitehouse plan would be the creation of biennial budgets with the hope that a two-year budget resolution would ease some of the annual spending squabbles and threats of government shutdowns. It would allow members of Congress to do what they so rarely do, and that is take time to truly examine the effectiveness of federal programs.
At least that’s the theory. Cynics suggest that members of Congress will still wait until the last minute to pass anything, and that the threat of shutdowns would remain. But maybe the threats wouldn’t come around so often.
The Blunt-Whitehouse plan also would diminish the president’s role in the budget process. It would seek to increase coordination by adding the chairpersons and ranking members of the Appropriations and Finance committees to the Budget Committee. It would require a joint hearing every two years with the comptroller general to lay out the fiscal state of the union.
It would also require Congress to complete the budget by May 1.
“If there’s one thing nearly all members of Congress can agree on, it’s that our budget process is broken,” Blunt said.
Budgets are a big deal. Failing to pass one each year costs money and creates uncertainty, a condition that Blunt has decried over the years.
These are baby steps. The big targets are building debt targets into the process or requiring that no bill that costs money can pass without a budget in place. But Blunt is right to continue pushing even on small improvements that might generate bipartisan support. That’s better than nothing.