Congress Hasn't Passed a Budget on Time in 27 Years
Congress' end-of-year rush to fund the federal government has become the norm.
In the final weeks of 2022, just days before they broke for Christmas, members of Congress came together at the last moment for a familiar holiday ritual. For one week a year, they kind of, sort of do their job.
That job includes authoring, debating, and passing a budget for the astounding amount of discretionary federal spending that Congress is charged with managing each year—in this case, about $1.7 trillion.
To avert a partial government shutdown, the spending bill was supposed to be passed by Friday, December 16. But on Thursday, December 15, with just a day left before the dreaded quasi-shutdown, Congress approved a one-week extension. "This is about taking a very simple, exceedingly responsible step to ensure we finish the year without hiccups and with minimal drama," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.).
At that point, no actual bill had been made public, meaning most lawmakers outside of leadership had little clarity about what was in it. The one-week extension resembled a last-minute reprieve for a college student who pleads for extra time to polish a major end-of-semester paper, of which not one word has actually been written.
As the following week began, it became clear that the bill was still very much a hypothetical construct, as much imagination as legislation. Reports in the morning papers indicated that the bill might or might not contain provisions related to airplane safety, a fresh extension of the child tax credit that had expired the previous year, changes to corporate tax policy, state conservation grants, money for military aid to Ukraine, and reforms designed to prevent the sort of electoral certification confusion that followed the 2020 presidential election. Also, $1.7 trillion in other spending, give or take.
That was Monday. The bill had to be passed before the end of the week so Congress could break for Christmas. But no text was available for inspection by the public, the press, or even most lawmakers.
The handful of party leaders and committee chairs tasked with negotiating the bill's details promised that the full text would be available that evening. But as the dinner hour came and went on Monday, reports indicated that it would be delayed.
"The chief holdup," according to Roll Call, "appeared to be language Democrats were trying to negotiate regarding the FBI's headquarters relocation project." Would the FBI be moved to Virginia? Or would it be relocated to Maryland? With just days to go before the deadline, that was Congress' $1.7 trillion question.
By Tuesday morning, the text had finally been released. It was 4,155 pages long. The Senate planned to vote on the measure that Thursday, the House shortly afterward.
Again, it was 4,155 pages long.
What was in the bill? Among other things, there was $200 million for the Gender Equity and Equality Action Fund and $7.5 million for studying "the domestic radicalization phenomenon." There was $750,000 for the Metropolitan Opera in New York to modernize its fire alarms. There was $410 million for border security in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Oman. Americans got $3 million for bee-friendly highways. The word salmon appeared 48 times.
And then there was the FBI building. The bill allocated $375 million for construction of a new headquarters in a D.C. suburb but did not make a final determination as to where it would be located. Instead the General Services Administration was given 90 days to consult with state lawmakers about that, with a focus on "addressing long-standing inequity" in federal project siting. Forced to make a decision, Congress had decided to eventually make a decision.
Two days after the text was released, the Senate passed the bill. The following day, the House followed suit. President Joe Biden signed the spending package and celebrated the accomplishment with a press release declaring that "the bipartisan funding bill advances key priorities for our country and caps off a year of historic bipartisan progress for the American people." Members of Congress had done their jobs, just in time to go home for Christmas.
This mad end-of-year rush has become the norm. Congress spends all year avoiding what is arguably its primary responsibility: crafting and passing a budget.
Ideally, the process moves in a thoughtful and orderly fashion over the course of a year, in what is often called "regular order." This process was codified by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which created both the Congressional Budget Office and the modern budgeting process.
Under regular order, the president releases a budget proposal early in the year, Congress passes a budget resolution no later than mid-April, and appropriations committees draw up spending bills for a dozen or so spending categories. Each of those is debated and voted on one at a time, with enough time to read, debate, and amend the bills. All of this is supposed to happen before October 1, the beginning of the federal government's fiscal year.
Congress has not completed all of the steps in the appropriations process on time since 1996. Many years, Congress has passed no budget resolution at all. Instead, the process has become increasingly centralized, with party leadership drawing up "omnibus" spending packages that combine all the appropriations bills into a single piece of megalegislation, which lawmakers are given essentially no time to read or debate. Because the budget bill is considered must-pass legislation, it has become a Christmas tree on which to hang unrelated provisions.
Given this situation, it was at least a little heartening that, as the new Congress started work in 2023, a group of House GOP rebels pushed for measures intended to bring the budget process closer to regular order. About 20 House Republicans refused to vote for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) as speaker unless he agreed to bring up appropriations bills individually, give lawmakers at least 72 hours to read them, and allow more amendments from rank-and-file members.
There were other demands, not all of which were as salutary and some of which were more self-serving. But much of the anti-McCarthy rebellion was driven by frustration with the budget process and its outcomes, and McCarthy eventually agreed to the rebels' main process demands.
Thanks to the Republican dissenters, the speaker vote failed more than a dozen times, delaying the formal start of the House legislative process for the better part of a week. News reports portrayed the rebellion as embarrassing and chaotic. But embarrassing and chaotic compared to what?
It remains to be seen whether McCarthy will deliver on his promises. But the rebellion's budget process demands amounted to a plea that Congress actually do its job all year round.