As summer turns to fall, there are some familiar rituals in DC.
At the Supreme Court Building, the Justices and a new set of law clerks are going through cases that have piled up over the summer in preparation for the long conference in two weeks and also looking at the briefs of the cases set for argument in October. I'll have a little more on what is already in store for what is already looking like another major term later this month.
On Capitol Hill, however, Senators and Representatives are going through what has unfortunately become a regular ritual of being unable to handle one of their most basic functions -- the passing of appropriations bills to keep the government running. The federal fiscal year used to run from July to June, but Congress decided in the 1970s to move the start back to October 1 to give Congress more time to pass a budget plus the appropriations bills. It has always been difficult to get all of the bills passed on time. In recent years, it has become almost impossible to get any appropriations bill passed on time.
Congress has tended to have a mixed record when one party controls both houses and the Presidency. In 2006, when the Republicans controlled both houses, they managed to at least get the bills for Defense and Homeland Security passed by mid-October before ultimately giving up. In 2005, the Republicans managed to pass two of the bills before the deadline and had everything done by the end of December.
In 2009, the Democrats got one bill done by October 1 and had everything else wrapped up by mid-December.
This year, so far, the House has managed to get four bills over to the Senate, but six bills are stalled on the House floor and two are still stuck in the Appropriations Committee. (The Senate Appropriations Committee has passed 11 of the 12 bills to the Senate floor).
It should not be that difficult to get this done on time. At least not if every year was not treated like Armageddon. Part of the problem is that appropriations (actually allocating the money for each program) is separate from authorization (creating/extending a program and defining what counts as fully funded). Authorization bills go through the "substantive" committees and are not considered by the Appropriations Committee. Appropriations bills do not go through the substantive committee.
This dichotomy makes no sense and is part of the problem. In a more sensible system, every department would (in a staggered manner) undergo reauthorization every eight years. A reauthorization bill would go through both the substantive committee and the Appropriations Committee. By including the Appropriations Committee, the "authorized" level for each program would actually match the level that the Appropriations Committee intended to fund instead of a different, fictional level. At that time, Congress would use a form of zero-based budgeting with each program having to justify its basic appropriations for the next eight year. Then, during the interim years, the presumption would be that funding would stay the same unless there was a consensus to change the level of funding for a program. This would limit the fighting over particular programs to once every eight years, and allow those charged with implementing a program a decent ability to predict their funding level for the next several years -- thereby allowing rational decision-making. With only one or two departments under significant review, the presumption would be created that the remaining bills should pass without difficulty. Furthermore, having a presumed appropriations bill would force those opposed to the current levels to specifically identify what levels they wanted to change and why those changes warranted throwing a monkey wrench into the process.
Instead of such a sensible system, we get the current mess where even a resolution to continue funding for the rest of government at the levels set forth in the sequester provisions of the current budget law gets held up on whether we should fund those operations connected with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Ultimately, something has to give. Hopefully, it will not be the credit rating of the federal government.