Politics & Government

As usual, Congress is way behind on budget bills

The U.S. Capitol framed by a late summer storm. Congress is meeting on the financial bailout.
The U.S. Capitol framed by a late summer storm. Congress is meeting on the financial bailout. J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama earlier this year promised America a new era of fiscal responsibility.

But with his first full fiscal year about to begin on October 1, the Democratic-controlled Congress has not passed a single major fiscal 2010 spending bill, and is virtually certain to begin funding the government next month with the same kind of stopgap steady-spending measure used during all eight years of the Bush administration.

"This is indicative of a larger problem," said budget expert Susan Tanaka. "We need to recognize there are larger issues at stake."

Those issues involve making the tough decisions that would pare the anticipated $9.05 trillion in deficits that the administration forecasts over the next 10 years, said Tanaka, director of citizen education and engagement at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which promotes fiscal responsibility.

The White House and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted last week that the fiscal 2009 budget deficit would reach about $1.6 trillion, or 11.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product, a post-World War II record. CBO sees a 2010 deficit of $1.38 trillion, or 9.6 percent of GDP next year.

Chances are that whatever spending bills Congress eventually passes will not change that number dramatically. But what the bills could accomplish is to put into law policies that could drive savings in the years ahead — or as Obama put it, "begin the hard work of bringing new levels of honesty and fairness to your government."

When steady-spending stopgap measures are used instead, they tend not to order such changes.

Analysts and lawmakers cite several reasons for the delays in passing annual appropriations bills. "The first year of any administration is a lot harder to get these things done," said Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan budget watchdog group.

Also, Washington has been focused on bigger, more glamorous issues, notably easing the nation's worst economic recession since the Great Depression and finding ways to overhaul the nation's health care system.

Members of Congress have been in the budget trenches, and their experiences this summer illustrate why it's so hard to pass spending bills. Before the House of Representatives could pass legislation funding the Commerce, State and Justice Departments in June, it had to debate and vote on 62 motions, amendments and other measures.

Last month, the Senate spent days fighting over an agriculture bill, at one point adding $350 million to help recession-battered dairy farmers. The measure needed 60 votes to pass, since it was higher than budget guidelines, and got them.

"There are so many examples of how the budget process is broken, and this is another one," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a watchdog group.

Obama has had some budget success. Congress approved his $787 billion economic stimulus plan in February, and the next month, he signed a $410 billion measure to keep much of the government funded through the end of fiscal 2009. That legislation was needed because of last year's Congress-Bush administration deadlock over spending.

Congress in April approved binding guidelines for the 2010 budget, which aim to cut the deficit in half by 2012 and provide for increased funding in many domestic programs. Congress's next step is to specify how that money will be spent by passing 12 appropriations bills, each dealing with a different subject area.

The House did its part, passing the spending bills before leaving for its summer recess on July 31. But the Senate has passed only four of the spending measures, and no compromises have yet been reached.

In many cases, agreement should come quickly. There is consensus on substantial increases for national and community service programs, charter schools and repairs to unsafe or unhealthy school buildings. The National Institutes of Health would get significant boosts for biomedical research from each chamber. So would public health programs that support HIV testing, infectious disease research and immunization.

Since the debate on health care is likely to dominate Congress during September, it's highly unlikely that the budget work will be finished by October 1. More likely, say congressional officials, is approval by Sept. 30 of a "continuing resolution" that funds much of the government at 2009 levels until at least mid-November.

Despite Obama's eagerness to streamline the process, there are probably few structural changes in the way budgets get funded likely in the future. "You cannot take the politics out of a fight that is inherently political and overwhelmingly political," said veteran budget analyst Stan Collender.

Lawmakers hope to finish most spending bills by late fall, but if not, more stopgap spending measures will be needed. Congress enacted four last year; the record is 21, in 2001.

What more stopgaps mean, said Tanaka, is that "it could make it more difficult for federal managers and the public to understand the level of spending."

For instance, there's no agreement yet on how much to spend on the popular Community Development Block Grant program, which funds a wide variety of local neighborhood programs in about 1,200 jurisdictions. CDBG can help pay for youth services, rehabilitation of public facilities, tree planting, asbestos removal, help for HIV/AIDS patients, and more.

The White House proposed spending $4.45 billion on it next year. The House, where the program is popular with lawmakers who can go home and point to its benefits, increased the amount to $4.6 billion. The Senate wants $3.99 billion.

Until that's resolved, local officials throughout the country cannot be sure how to proceed.

"The delay raises questions not only of fiscal responsibility," said Tanaka, "but whether you can manage your operations well."


2010 budget conference agreement

Congressional Budget Office mid-year review

White House mid-year review

History of continuing resolutions"


What must Obama do to take control of drifting agenda?

Obama's deficit problem: $1.58 trillion is the new $455 billion

Questions and answers about the economy

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington

(e-mail: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com)

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