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Budget bills: Brace for a long continuing resolution

Sep. 11, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
As lawmakers return to Washington this week after the August break  seven months after President Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1  Congress is nowhere near completing work on any of the dozen appropriations bills.
As lawmakers return to Washington this week after the August break seven months after President Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 Congress is nowhere near completing work on any of the dozen appropriations bills. (Agence France-Presse file photo)

Fiscal 2010 ends in less than three weeks, but it will be at least November before agencies will hone budgets for next year.

As lawmakers return to Washington this week after the August break seven months after President Obama proposed a $3.8 trillion budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1 Congress is nowhere near completing work on any of the dozen appropriations bills. And most experts agree there are slim odds of movement on the bills before lawmakers head out to the campaign trail for the November midterm elections.

"I'm expecting very little action on the appropriations bills because Congress simply won't be in long enough to make significant progress," said Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation think tank. Like other analysts, Riedl thinks the Defense appropriations bill stands the best chance of winning final approval in the next few weeks. Otherwise, he predicts most agencies will be saddled with stopgap continuing resolutions that keep federal spending at 2010 levels at least into November. And many experts expect that the spending bills will be bundled into a massive omnibus appropriations package that will be approved in a lame-duck session before year's end.

Stuck in the logjam is Obama's bid for a 1.4 percent pay raise for the federal government's military and civilian work forces. Although the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved the civilian pay increase, its House counterpart has not yet followed suit. Republicans have repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to kill the proposed hike and are not ruling out another attempt.

Last week, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, unveiled a plan to dial back federal spending to 2008 levels.

"We're optimistic, but cautious," said Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association, on the outlook for a raise. Klement acknowledged, however, that the increase is a tough sell for lawmakers up for re-election at a time when much of the nation is hurting economically.

"There is so much fed-bashing going on right now, it's hard to go back to your constituents and say ‘I voted to give feds a pay raise,' " she said.

Stan Collender, a budget expert at Qorvis Communications, put the odds of a civilian pay raise at 50-50 "at best."

Also up in the air is the size of a military pay increase. In its version of the 2011 Defense authorization bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee went along with Obama's proposed 1.4 percent increase. The full House approved a 1.9 percent boost.

Congressional budget writers rarely stick to schedule, but this year's process has moved at an especially slow pace. Of the dozen spending bills, the House has approved only two; the rest remain pending in the House Appropriations Committee. Nothing has yet passed the full Senate, where three spending measures have yet to receive a vote from their respective appropriations subcommittees.

Another budget-watcher sees lawmakers paralyzed at a time of record federal budget deficits.

"They don't want to add spending and they don't want to make cuts, so it's frozen them in place," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan organization that pushes for fiscal restraint.

For federal managers, continuing resolutions are nothing new, but the challenges they pose are detrimental to agency operations, Klement said. "You can't plan."

A big wild card is the impact of the November congressional elections. Political handicappers predict that Republicans could take back the House and perhaps even the Senate.

In either case, the GOP would not formally assume control until the new Congress is seated in January, but Republican lawmakers could seek to preemptively flex their muscles in any lame-duck session, with unpredictable results.

"I don't think anybody has a sense of what will happen," said James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, another think tank.

While it's possible that the GOP would seek to delay action on fiscal 2011 spending legislation until next year, Horney said, it's also possible that "Republicans would want to reach a compromise to get the bill done."

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