The consequences for failing to come to an on-time budget agreement aren’t enough to incentivize Congress to avoid the cost of continuing resolutions and shutdowns, according to experts and congressmen who spoke during a Feb. 6 Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing.
“We set up rules and then we disobey our own rules,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., adding that both parties seem intent on breaking sequestration caps on agency spending equally, rather than finding compromise on how to reduce the deficit.
Congress has been so unmotivated to pass on-time appropriations that, in the past 40 years, only four annual appropriations have been passed without the involvement of a continuing resolution first, according to Heather Krause, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office.
In the 2018 fiscal year, Congress has passed four continuing resolutions and looks likely to pass a fifth by Thurs., Feb. 8.
Krause added that CRs and government shutdowns can increase costs and reduce government services and productivity, mirroring recent industry findings that continuing resolutions jack up government costs rather than preserve spending levels.
According to Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the CR that ended the recent government shutdown tacked on $31 billion to the nation’s debt.
“There are a lot of ideas that have been put out there [to incentivize Congress,]” said MacGuineas. “No budget, no pay, cancelling congressional recesses, prohibiting consideration of bills that have fiscal impacts until a budget has been passed and compelling the Senate to be in session in the chamber if the government has been shut down.”
MacGuineas added that automatic cuts to certain areas of the budget and automatic increases to others might be needed to get both sides of the political spectrum hurting enough to come to the table.
Paul recently introduced legislation called the Shutdown Prevention Act that would create automatic, 90-day continuing resolutions if Congress fails to pass a budget on time. Such continuing resolutions would fund agencies at 99 percent of the previous year’s levels.
MacGuineas said that she supports automatic continuing resolutions, but added that “budget process reform will in no way be able to replace the political will to confront the issues that we’re trying to fix.”
Alice M. Rivlin, senior fellow in economics studies at the Brookings Institution, said that the most recent government surplus, which occurred under the Clinton administration, was only possible because both parties actively chose to make decisions that they didn’t necessarily like in order to craft workable appropriations.
Rivlin added that the biggest obstacle to passing on-time legislation is extreme partisanship, because the U.S. policymaking system is designed for compromise.
Rand said that the current process for crafting whole-of-government budget authorizations means that most congressmen don’t have a say in what the bill actually includes. Committees decide on the appropriation’s contents, and all other congressmen have only a single vote to either approve or disapprove of the whole government’s budget authorization.
“The interesting thing is that I’ve never ever voted for a specific project or even a group of projects, because I’ve never voted for anything other than everything all at once,” said Paul.
According to the witnesses, potential solutions include breaking up the budget authorizations into smaller bills, extending budget negotiation time and creating multiyear appropriations that don’t require the yearly scramble for authorization.
“I think where you start is you talk about a shared fiscal goal,” said MacGuineas.