Race to finish fiscal 2015 agency budgets hits snag

Monday - 7/7/2014, 5:56pm EDT

The budget process on Capitol Hill appears to have hit a summer slump.

Congress needs to pass 12 annual spending bills, which set agency funding levels, before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. So far, the House has only passed five of those bills and the Senate hasn't passed any.

While the deadline is still more than two months away, fewer than 30 working days are left for Congress to hammer out a deal on spending levels before the deadline.

The appropriations process was supposed to be easier this year compared to last, because lawmakers had signed off on a bipartisan deal that set top- line spending levels for the next two years.

But action in both the House and the Senate appears to have largely stalled. Last month, for example, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, delayed votes on a few key spending bills over disagreements about whether to move forward on bill amendments, according to a Politico report.

A return to 'normal dysfunction?'

It's far from the budget quagmire appropriators found themselves in last year, when House and Senate took wildly divergent approaches to account for the across-the-board sequestration budget cuts — and wound up some $91 billion apart in their respective spending plans.

But stubborn disagreements remain over the nitty-gritty of individual agency spending levels.

"I think it is true that things are easier this year, but that's really grading on a curve," said Philip Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "We're to a place where they've agreed on a top- line number, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're going to agree on the details. ... We have returned to normal dysfunction as opposed to extreme dysfunction."

So, what's the hold-up now?

From the beginning, the bipartisan budget deal, negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) last December, only set agreement on the overall spending figure, not the 12 individual bills that govern agency spending.

"That made the individual bills problematic from the beginning," said Stan Collender, a federal budget expert and executive vice president at Qorvis MSL Group.

The fact that it's an election-year means political calculus is making even more of an intrusion than usual.

"They're going to have trouble with the Defense bill, they're going to have trouble with the HHS bill. I mean, they may even have trouble with the legislative branch bill," Collender said. "Members just don't like voting for more spending, but they don't want to vote for cuts that'll affect their districts or states."

Experts: Agencies should plan for continuing resolution

A continuing resolution seems all but certain, especially considering Republicans have their eye on retaking control of the Senate. The likely outcome, according to experts, is some kind of stopgap funding measure covering agency funding at least through November's midterms. Then, depending on the outcome of the election, the potential for an omnibus appropriations bill.

CRs have become par for the course in recent years — to the detriment of agency operations.

Joyce's research has focused on the damaging effects of short-term funding measures and federal agencies' ability to plan.

"The big difference is that last year agencies didn't really know how much money they were going to get and they didn't know when they were going to get it," Joyce said. "Now, I think they probably have a better idea of how much they're going to end up with, but they still don't know when they're going to get it."

Plus, the years of stopgap budgeting and down-to-the-wire deadlines have inured agencies, in some ways, to the reality.

Joyce's research has suggested that agencies have become used to dealing with CRs as long as they don't last longer than about three months.

"We've become so used to this government-by-continuing-resolution that we're almost sort of immune to its effect," Joyce said.

There may be a silver lining to a CR this year.

"Continuing resolutions used to be bad news in terms of dollars, because they meant spending at prior year's levels," said Kenneth Gold, director of Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute, "at a time when at least some growth in agency budgets was virtually guaranteed."

Agencies, now, are still bound by the 2011 Budget Control Act's deficit-reduction spending constraints — and automatic cuts if spending rises above those caps.

"So, continuing resolutions" — in which funding essentially stays flat — "are perhaps the best case for federal departments and agencies, which is weird and bizarre," Gold said.

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