Another Month, Another Stopgap Spending Bill

Weekly WastebasketAnother Month, Another Stopgap Spending BillCongress, you have one job.

Budget & Tax,  | Weekly Wastebasket
Dec 6, 2019  | 5 min read | Print Article

If you’re not a budget wonk like us, you could be forgiven for not noticing when a one-month continuing resolution (CR) finally got signed the week before Thanksgiving. After all, cable news had more gripping Congressional activity to cover.

It is good news that the government did not shut down. But the lack of attention to this news is an indication of yet another norm that has fallen by the wayside – how sad is it that the U.S. government is functioning on month-to-month allowances?

The current CR expires on December 20th, the Friday before Christmas. Now Congress has only two weeks to go through twelve spending bills, on which both House and Senate must agree before President Trump signs them into law. They have already agreed to the top line for each of the dozen bills, but details, not so much. Lucky Congress: who among us doesn’t want to spend the week before the holidays working late nights to resolve legislation worth nearly $1.3 trillion to fulfill a basic expectation of democratic governance for the largest economy on the planet?

Congress needs to get the appropriations bills done: this is their one annual constitutional charge. But there is almost no chance they will do so in the next two weeks. Instead, we can expect yet another short-term CR. Continuing resolutions are a terrible practice. By funding at previous year levels for a limited window of time, CRs are hardwired to be inefficient and undermine any efforts to plan for the long-term. Taxpayers deserve better. And while the next CR may be longer than a month, it won’t be long enough to allow agencies to look ahead and make resource-informed decisions. By law (more on that later) agencies can’t promise to spend funds until they actually have them – even if they know the costs or needs are coming in January.

Casting a shadow over the FY2020 appropriations bills and making another CR the almost certain outcome in the near-term is the president’s insistence on billions in additional funding for a border wall.

The Trump Administration has already employed several highly questionable strategies to get around the fact that Congress does not have the votes for even more wall funding. Strategies that have reintroduced us all at TCS to the Antideficiency Act, the Impoundment Act, and the Purpose Act.

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But at the end of the day, the administration wants appropriated funds for the wall. And if it doesn’t get them, we may well reach an impasse that leads to another government shutdown. Everyone loses in a government shutdown.

The most recent shutdown resolved nothing, cost at least $2.2 billion, reduced 2019 first quarter GDP by $8 billion, shaving 0.4 percent off of quarterly real GDP growth to 3.1 percent. It also resulted in nearly 6.6 million lost federal workdays (equal to more than 25,000 work years).

It’s not too late for Congress to do its job, though. And Congress does seem to have fitfully realized and rediscovered in the last year that it does in fact hold the power of the purse. More important, to quote Sen. Shelby (R-AL), a recent and favorite Quote of the Week, “You’d be surprised what you can do in two days if you work together.” Yes, it is possible for Congress to get it together, stay focused, roll up its sleeves, work together, and perform one of its basic duties – figuring out how to fund the government.

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