The passing of Labor Day reminds us that kids are back in school, the days are getting shorter and pumpkin spice flavoring will start appearing in products everywhere. It also means a favorite pastime is here for D.C. beltway political enthusiasts: federal budget watch.
Labor Day marks less than a month for Congress to pass an annual budget before the previous year’s budget expires on Sept. 30. It’s uncertain what steps Congress will take to ensure prompt passage of fiscal year 2023.
Labor Day marks less than a month for Congress to pass an annual budget before the previous year’s budget expires on Sept. 30.
The budget process continuously loops and sometimes even overlaps itself. The president must send to Congress the administration’s budget request by the first Monday in February every year. The development of a president’s budget is a complex, exhaustive process given the vastness of the federal government, with each agency taking part and the White House providing close oversight. Unsurprisingly, the White House often misses this deadline; but when the budget does get released, it is with the fanfare of press briefings, congressional budget hearings and the urging of prompt and robust funding.
Urgency aside, the president’s budget sometimes dies on Capitol Hill. Congress can use the request as a template to craft its budget legislation or ignore some, most or all of it. First, Congress must agree on topline numbers, a step known as a budget resolution. Leaders break down topline numbers by issue areas aligning with various government agencies. Often, Congress can’t agree on those topline numbers; there is, for example, no bicameral agreement for fiscal year 2023. Whether or not Congress agrees to a topline, the next step is the appropriation process, where congressional members and staff of the Senate and House Appropriations committees further divide topline numbers, or at least an approximate of the topline, between various authorized programs across the government. Appropriations chairs usually hold multiple hearings, but in the Senate this year, the Appropriations chair released all FY 2023 spending bill drafts without them. In the House, they held hearings, and several of the bills successfully moved from committee to gain full passage in the chamber but were not taken up by the Senate. Without further House and Senate advances and with the clock ticking, hopes for FY 2023 funding now hinge on continuing resolutions and an eventual all-encompassing omnibus.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Workaround
The lack of Senate and House movement on the appropriations process is not new, and a continuing resolution is a workaround. Between fiscal years 1977 and 2019, Congress used continuing resolutions 43 times. Such resolutions can simply extend previous-year funding or extend it with a few modifications that deal with nonpolarizing issues. FY 2023 includes polarizing issues that threaten the passage of a resolution. If history repeats, however, there will be a short-term continuing resolution to get us through the elections to avoid a shutdown. Then passage of a bill rests on the election outcome. If Democrats keep leadership of both chambers of Congress, the passage of an omnibus is likely. If Republicans wrest control from Democrats of one or both chambers, it could mean another continuing resolution that could last well into the new Congress and transfer pressure from Democrats to the new Republican leadership to get a deal done with the White House.
The budget process is messy and uncertain, and the chaotic norm has an adverse impact on government programs at federal, state and local levels. According to Congressional Budget Office, there are 1,229 expiring authorizations and appropriations once FY 2023 ends. A timely budget bill could avoid the ending of many of the programs these authorizations and appropriations represent. However, although the use of a continuing resolution supports programs for a time, it puts fiscal planners and government implementers across the nation in a jam as they crunch numbers over again. Some view CRs as a waste of money, undermining trust in government, challenging national and economic security, and hindering program success. A government shutdown is even worse, as spigots for life-altering programs are completely shut off.
The budget has long been a political tool that leaders of both parties use to embolden support or to attack opponents, and it looks like this year will be no different. The process remains challenging and mired in politics.
Brian Wanko is director of NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Program.