Acknowledging they are indulging a dangerous habit, the House on Thursday passed a six-month, $1.047 trillion federal spending bill that will keep the government from shutting down by adding about $8 billion in spending while it dodges the larger debate about the critical need to cut spending.
"This isn't the way Congress should consider a budget," Rep. David Price, D-N.C., lamented on the House floor Thursday before lawmakers passed the measure 329-91. The Senate will consider an identical bill in the coming days. "We are really in bad shape if the best we can say is we are keeping the government open," Price added. "That really sets the bar low."
Price is among the many Democrats in the House who say the temporary, lump-sum spending measure shortchanges federal agencies that deserve separate spending bills that award much larger spending boosts. Many Republicans want to shrink spending in light of a massive federal deficit.
But since both parties are even more eager to avoid having a spending debate just weeks before the critical November elections, they agreed Thursday to pass the short-term measure, which lasts until the end of March.
The extra $8 billion in the temporary measure comes mostly from an across-the-board budget boost of six-tenths of a percent.
The larger problem, say budget experts, is that Congress appears to be losing its ability to create and follow a regular budget blueprint and pass it before each fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
Congress has not approved separate spending measures, on time, for each agency, since 1995, according to the Congressional Research Service. And according to the CRS, lawmakers last managed to pass spending bills for each agency in 2006, and they did so weeks late, after the fiscal year had already begun.
Since then, an increasingly partisan Congress has regularly crammed multiple spending bills into "omnibus" legislation or lawmakers have punted the responsibility completely with temporary measures like the one the House passed Thursday to avert a shutdown.
"It used to be that it was embarrassing when Congress wouldn't get its appropriations work done on time," said Patrick Louis Knudsen, a senior budget expert at the Heritage Foundation who served as a House Budget Committee staffer for two decades. "Now they do it deliberately."
In the Senate, the Democrats who run the chamber have not passed an overall budget blueprint in three years, a point Republicans like to drive home in an effort to label the party as fiscally irresponsible. The 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act requires each chamber to pass a budget resolution, but Democrats have dodged it because they do not agree on how much to spend.
Without that blueprint, say budget experts, lawmakers are apt to spend more money.
House Republicans, however, are spending more this year despite passing a budget plan in the House. Their blueprint, authored by Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, called for $1.028 trillion in spending. Yet House lawmakers, including Ryan, a member of Congress from Wisconsin, voted for the $1.047 trillion bill on Thursday even though it marks a $19 billion increase over their own cap. They did so in order to avoid a clash with the Democratically run Senate that might result in a shutdown that could be politically disastrous.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., acknowledged "election year politics" are to blame for Congress not passing separate bills. "It is imperative to our nation's future and to our finances that we return to a timely regular order of business on such important funding legislation," he said.