Congress' to-do list crowded with budget headaches

Friday - 9/6/2013, 6:50pm EDT

Congress returns to work today with a crowded agenda and little time.

Right off the bat, lawmakers face three major issues related to the federal budget: Setting annual agency funding for when the new fiscal year kicks in Oct. 1; coming up with an alternative to the automatic spending constraints known as sequestration that are set to take an even bigger bite from federal spending next year; and negotiating a raise in the borrowing limit before the government defaults on its obligations.

Setting aside the budget, there are also other measures affecting federal employees that remain to be worked out, including legislation to overhaul the cash-strapped Postal Service and a potential 1 percent pay raise for civilian federal workers.

Did we mention there are just nine legislative days left before Congress faces the first of these deadlines?

So, at least for the short-term, don't expect any grand sweeping measures from Congress, experts say.

Budget to-do list by the numbers

4 — number of appropriations bills the House has passed this year

0 — number of appropriations bills the Senate has passed this year

12 — number of appropriations bills Congress needs to pass annually

9 — number of legislative days before the fiscal year ends

$967 billion — amount of spending in FY 2014 authorized by House budget plan

$1.058 trillion — amount of spending in FY 2014 authorized by Senate budget plan

$91 billion — difference in spending between House and Senate plans

"I would like to think that what the Congress is going to do is take this opportunity to resolve — if not once and for all, at least for the next couple of years — what the direction of the federal budget is going to be and try to actually create some predictability for federal agencies, contractors and other people who get money from the federal government," said Philip Joyce, a professor at the University of Maryland. "There's nothing in our recent experience which should lead us to believe that that's actually going to happen, however."

Sequestration complicating budget process

The first deadline Congress faces is in passing annual appropriations bills. In a normal year (which has become all too rare), lawmakers must agree on 12 annual spending bills establishing agency funding before the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1 — or risk a government shutdown.

"The Congress has done virtually nothing in terms of trying to finance appropriations for fiscal year 2014, so that's something they're going to have to deal with one way or another," Joyce said.

The good news is that there's already movement on this front. The House is expected to take up a continuing resolution as early as this week, although no details have yet been released.

Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee said the funding bill would likely be at the current, post-sequestration levels.

The appropriations process this year has been snarled by the automatic budget constraints known as sequestration.

The House and the Senate generally disagree about how to account for the cuts. The House settled on a $967 billion plan that encompasses the total amount of the sequester cuts but spares the Defense Department from deeper reductions. The Senate, on the other hand, wants a higher top-line number of $1.058 trillion, which assumes that sequestration will be repealed or replaced with alternative deficit savings.

With no plan yet for bridging that $91 billion gap, nearly all analysts agree lawmakers will punt the issue at least for a few weeks by passing a stopgap continuing resolution.

"Chances are a CR is going to get passed," said Jessica Klement, legislative director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE). "But at what levels? That can cause headaches."

That's because sequestration in 2014 will require Congress to keep spending below the current year's level. If Congress issues a stopgap funding measure that spends above the budgetary caps imposed by law, that would bring about a forced across- the-board reduction to bring spending back below the prescribed levels.

"I think federal agencies and other people that deal with the federal government can expect that if we just have business as usual — which is just an impasse on the budget and maybe a series of continuing resolutions — we'll see a sequestration for fiscal year 2014, which will look an awful lot like the one for 2013," Joyce said.