The President’s Budget is set to launch sometime next week — the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has its fingers crossed for Monday — and will kick off a federal budget process that was supposed to begin the first week of February. Unfortunately OMB was a little busy this February — still reeling from the impact of the government shutdown. That’s why this year’s request is over a month late. But delayed budgets and the complications that arise from those delays have become commonplace practices that place additional strain on congressional oversight functions.
Congress is responsible for authorizing (deciding how much to spend on any given program) and then appropriating (passing bills to actually provide resources to those programs) funds so that the federal government can write checks (if you ever see funding labeled as “outlays,” it’s essentially a government receipt for money spent). This process is supposed to run smoothly every year, with enough time for each step of the process, so that the President can sign a normal appropriations bill before the next fiscal year rolls around and they have to start the process all over again.
Deviating from the timeline means less time for every consecutive step, and often results in two other kinds of appropriations bills: Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that provide the federal government with funding for a set amount of time, or supplemental appropriations that usually happen when there’s an outsized and immediate need for more funding than currently available (like in the event of a natural disaster). Unfortunately, Congress and the administration have a track record of delays that necessitate CR after CR and throw the normal budget cycle way out of whack.
Reliance on these band-aid measures to fund the government demonstrates how ineffective the current system actually is. What was once considered a last resort has now become a regular practice — continuing resolutions have been passed nearly every year since the current budget procedures were put in place by the 1974 Congressional Budget Act. Myriad government agencies have reported that this practice leads to “delays and rework in contracts, grants, and hiring” and generals have long lamented that CRs make long-term planning nearly impossible for the military. Continuing resolutions are also hard to oversee: they differ in the length of their efficacy, funding authorization, and content. Members of Congress can also use the urgency surrounding the passage of a CR to slip in funding for personal initiatives or controversial projects that might otherwise receive more scrutiny.
In fact, the formal budget process doesn’t actually cover everything. Funds for things like Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) — often called the Pentagon’s “slush fund” — aren’t subject to the same restrictions as other appropriated funds. This is a problem because an administration that wants to increase defense spending without increasing the budget for other areas (like education, environmental protection, and international engagement, for example) can inflate funds like OCO with program functions that should be included in the normal defense base funding. In a preview of what we can expect to see on Monday, the Trump administration seems to using this strategy in an extreme way, with $576 billion going into the base defense budget while $174 billion goes into OCO — resulting in a final tally of $750 billion in defense spending for 2020. At first glance, this looks like fiscal responsibility – since it leads to lower departmental budgets overall. What it really does is allow for huge increases in defense spending.
Abusing OCO this way hinders bipartisan debate over how federal funds should be spent because it prevents the opposing party from calling for an equal investment or divestment in defense and non-defense — a common compromise in the past few years. Presenting the initial budget offer to Congress in this way means that the President’s budget might be too much fantasy and not enough reality. Many Americans don’t realize this is happening, making it easy to misinterpret an administration’s stated bottom line.
Congress is truly caught in a bind: the formal budget process comes with a host of complications, yet deviating from the formal process creates even more downstream problems. Efforts to improve the budget process have been slow and inconsistent and growing polarization between the two major political parties has made coming to a bipartisan budget agreement a greater challenge each year. With more than half of the federal budget falling under “mandatory spending” on Medicare and Social Security that is decided by a formula, there is an increasingly small proportion of federal spending to be actively deliberated by the appropriations process. Overlaps in committee jurisdiction create further redundancies, adding to the inefficiency of the process. The result is a budget process that erodes confidence in Congress, elicits frustration in lawmakers, and extends timelines.
The power of the purse has become an increasingly problematic, but still-essential function of the modern checks and balances on government power. Due to the recent government shutdown, the President’s Budget and the budget requests of some federal departments are delayed this year. These setbacks will mean that policymakers have even less time to evaluate incoming budget requests, authorize program-level spending, and then successfully create a bipartisan and bicameral appropriations bill that the President will actually accept and sign into law. Less time at every stage of this process means that Members of Congress and their staffers are under more pressure than ever to perform all the necessary oversight on a quickly ticking clock.
(This piece was originally published in Inkstick.)