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Blog: What Will Happen to the 2015 Federal Budget When Congress Returns in September?

Aug 28, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

The Fiscal Times reminds us that Congress has only successfully passed 13 spending bills on time since 2001, and during election years has enacted a federal budget only 25% of the time. So I guess we should not be surprised that everyone is anticipating a “continuing resolution” (CR) as a near inevitability this year with mid-term elections soon upon us and only about 12 days of congressional activity remaining in September before recess.

However, since the successful negotiations of Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI-01) and congressional approval of their two-year budget deal in December 2013 following the government shutdown in October, most pundits expected the passage of the 2015 budget to be a relatively easy exercise.

Instead, the House has passed only four of 12 appropriation bills for 2015, the Senate has passed none, and, of course, no appropriations bills have been enacted. It appears that the acrimony and partisanship that have dominated the run-up to the midterm election process has also seeped into congressional dealings and ended any thought of bipartisan agreement on the 2015 budget.

The appropriations Chairs – Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Representative Harold Rogers (R-KY-05) have conscientiously used the numbers from the December budget deal in drawing up their respective budgets and accompanying legislation, but action in the Senate has been stymied by a disagreement between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Essentially, the argument between Reid and McConnell boils down to a failure to find a mutually agreeable process for approving amendments to the spending bills. AAS Blogger Joshua Shiode describes the machinations and jockeying between Reid and McConnell as a “complicated dance surrounding the appropriations bills,” or in less colorful language, one might consider it a “test of wills.”

As some legislators pointed out, part of the problem was an unanticipated emergency request from the president for $3.7 billion to deal with the humanitarian crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America at our southern border, which disrupted the appropriations process. But unexpected issues are a significant part of governmental decision-making, so clearly this interruption was not a causal factor in playing havoc with what was already a chaotic process.

By mid-July, Mikulski, who had earlier hoped to complete all individual spending bills prior to October 1, was already acknowledging that an overall omnibus bill would be needed to wrap up fiscal year 2015 work. As late as last week, at an event in her home state Mikulski said she planned in early September one more push at an omnibus bill even it was a long-shot, before conceding the need for a continuing resolution. Roll Call indicated in its August 11 edition that Mikulski would use the 2015 Military Construction-VA spending bill as the vehicle for a catchall package because Congress had recently agreed to a groundbreaking bill for veteran’s health care, and VA medical care could be the impetus for moving to an omnibus. However, her House counterpart, Harold Rogers, who frequently worked closely with her on strategy, was less sanguine about the successful possibility of an omnibus, and conceded that a continuing resolution was probably inevitable.

With all due respect to Senator Mikulski, whose formidable power to help achieve passage of legislation is legendary, Rogers is more likely to be correct. Here’s why. Both houses of Congress have given themselves approximately 12 legislative days before recessing for campaigning for the midterms. Prior to the summer recess, the House and Senate passed divergent bills on President Obama’s request for supplemental funds to deal with the humanitarian crisis on our southern border. This unfinished business will probably be taken up in early September.

Another controversial issue that is bound to consume valuable time is the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, whose expiration occurs on September 30. A highly unusual coalition of Democrats, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups are supporting its reauthorization. In a strange twist, House Republicans, many influential with the leadership, oppose its reauthorization as “crony capitalism” as well as corporate welfare.

In an early session of the Senate in September, Harry Reid plans to begin consideration of a bipartisan proposal to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank for five years. If time runs out, Reid plans to attach it to must-pass legislation, such as the continuing resolution. It isn’t at all clear that Mikulski will have the time she would require to gather momentum for an omnibus bill or even to get it to the floor, given Reid’s penchant for a rather authoritarian approach to his leadership role.

If the leadership and the majority in both the House and Senate decide to pass a continuing resolution, the area of disagreement may well center on its timing. If the Republicans are confident of winning a Senate majority, they may vote to extend the resolution into February or March of 2015 so that their party will have the opportunity to change the federal budget before fiscal year 2016. By the same token, if the Democrats fear losing their Senate majority, they would more likely vote to extend the continuing resolution only to the end of the lame duck session. And, of course, the reverse is true. The key issue is that the ensuing contention will be time-consuming, when only a few days remain to deal with significant matters.

Regardless of all the uncertainties that September will bring and given the gridlock for which the 113th Congress is well-known, it is more than mere conjecture that this Congress will approach its budgetary responsibility with a continuing resolution – another example of “kicking the can down the road” (an overused but apt cliché).