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Congress, stop budgeting by crisis

Dec 6, 2019 by AFP

Once again, Congress is far behind the eight ball when it comes to funding the government and is now headed for another end of year budget crisis.

Why?

It’s now more than two months after the end of the fiscal year and Congress hasn’t passed a single spending billInstead, lawmakers have relied on two stopgap bills just to keep the lights on and they are unlikely to finish the job before the current one expires on Dec. 20.

Fiscally reckless lawmakers of both parties will argue that they have only two options to deal with this crisis: A costly and unnecessary federal shutdown or a gargantuan, irresponsible spending bill that spends too much and forces bad policy choices unrelated to spending.

But lawmakers are wrong to claim that we have only two options.

There is a tool, as detailed in AFP’s latest policy report, that could prevent this costly crisis budgeting: An automatic continuing resolution, which funds agencies automatically when appropriations bills aren’t passed.

An automatic continuing resolution is a better option

Congress has resorted to budgeting by crisis whenever it is time to budget.

In the 45 years since the enactment of the Budget Act, Congress has managed to pass all necessary spending bills to keep the government running just four times

Lawmakers often rely on stopgap measures to fund the government. Nevertheless, this hasn’t prevented shutdowns.

An auto-CR would be a fail-safe mechanism to ensure that federal agencies are funded when lawmakers do not pass the necessary spending bills, and prevent the false choice between shutdowns and crisis budgeting.

The danger of a shutdown

If Congress fails to negotiate a spending bill, the federal government will shut down. That would be costly.

Federal agencies would have to determine which of their operations are subject to the shutdown and which are not. They must notify employees whether to come to work, as well, and employees who are furloughed are typically paid retroactively.

Canceled travel, late payments to vendors and delayed maintenance also contribute to greater federal expenses. Agency costs for the last three shutdowns exceeded $4 billion.

Rather than curb federal spending or agency size, shutdowns simply render the government more dysfunctional than it already is.

Not another spending spree

A massive spending bill, passed at the very last minute, would also be disastrous. It would all but ensure that Congress spends even more irresponsibly, including on obsolete programs and pork barrel goodies. It would also force lawmakers to vote on bad policies that should be considered on their own merits, such as this year’s extension of the Export-Import Bank.

What’s more, not a single lawmaker will have bothered to read this Frankenstein’s monster-like legislation. It will simply pass through both chambers of Congress and be signed on the president’s desk — and we will pay for it.

Congress should pass its regular appropriations bills on time. Nevertheless, when it doesn’t do so, an auto-CR could incentivize lawmakers to end crisis budgeting.

A good first step

It’s important to keep in mind: An auto-CR would not solve all Congress’ budgeting or spending problems.

Congress would still need to deliberate and make necessary trade-offs to craft a budget that works. What’s more, an auto-CR would not be able to solve our overspending problem.

Lawmakers will need to make tough choices to reduce our deficit, including reforming our mandatory spending programs.

Still, an auto-CR could be a useful tool to promote responsible budgeting and perhaps even incentivize lawmakers to scale down obsolete and duplicative programs.

 To learn more about how an auto-CR works, check out Americans for Prosperity’s latest policy analysis report.