With House gone, Congress again poised to fail on spending work

As the U.S. House left Thursday on an extended summer break which will last until Labor Day, Republican leaders in Congress signaled that 2018 won’t be much different from the past twenty-plus years on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers once more will not get their spending work done on time by the end of September, requiring the approval of a temporary funding plan to avoid a government shutdown on October 1.

“There will be some bills that won’t pass or won’t be ready by then,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan of the fiscal deadline, acknowledging at a Thursday news conference what everyone on Capitol Hill already knew, that Congress won’t finish its spending work on time for the twenty-second consecutive year.

So far, the House has approved six of the twelve bills which fund the operations of the federal government. The Senate has voted on three of those spending bills.

Lawmakers in the House certainly have the time to act on the six unfinished bills awaiting action – but the House is now gone until September 4 – leaving only 11 scheduled legislative work days in September – between the end of July and the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.

While the Senate will work most of August – the House schedule shows no legislative work in August in D.C. – and if you’re not in session, it’s sort of hard to pass bills.

In an event this past week at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, there was no surprise at the inability of the House and Senate to do their spending work on time among those who have worked in Congress or watched lawmakers up close for years.

“I think a lot of it is there is just not the will to get the appropriations process done each year,” said Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institute.

Since Congress reformed its budget process in 1974, Congress has only completed spending work on time in 1976, 1988, 1994, and 1996.

And this year will be no different, requiring the use of stopgap funding measures, known as “Continuing Resolutions,” and maybe a giant “Omnibus” funding bill to finish that spending work – something President Donald Trump had vowed not to do this year.

“I think he better be prepared to sign another Continuing Resolution or an Omnibus bill before the year is out,” said Bill Hoagland, a former top staffer on the Senate Budget Committee.

So far, the House has approved 6 of the 12 spending bills for 2019:

“Best case scenario – five or six (bills) – probably more realistic three or four, will be signed into law,” by October 1, said Donald Wolfensberger, a former top staffer on the House Rules Committee.

“So, you are going to have a Continuing Resolution, and they’ll be back after the election to patch things up,” Wolfensberger added, which brings into play the possibility of an Omnibus funding bill, something which President Trump said in March he would not approve.

“I will never sign another bill like this again – I’m not going to do it again,” the President said in March, when Congress jammed all the 12 spending measures into one giant bill, and sent it to the White House for his signature.

This time, maybe what the President will be asked to sign in terms of overdue spending legislation will be something a bit smaller – but still, it won’t happen until after the spending deadline.

“We know that Congress is quite bad at meeting these deadlines,” said Reynolds of Brookings, as some have suggested getting rid of the fiscal year, and simply budgeting on a calendar year basis, or move to a two-year ‘biennial’ budget.

“I guess the big question always looming as we near October 1, is will there be another government shutdown?” said Wolfensberger.

“I don’t think either party wants to have one, because it’s not going to help either party in the November elections,” he added.

Obviously, it would be much easier to get the work done – if the House was in session in August.

“Congress and members of Congress could stand up and make the process work better,” said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who noted that a special panel is now looking at changing the budget process.

“The current budget process has dysfunction and disorder built into the process,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), who is on a special House-Senate committee to consider changes to the budget system on Capitol Hill.

One piece of that dysfunction might be the five week break the House is now on, which all but insures failure when it comes to finishing the spending bills for 2019.

But that reform effort won’t change the budget process this year, again raising the threat of a government shutdown and an omnibus funding bill – a repeat Capitol Hill has seen every year since 1997.

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