Congress Squanders Year As Appropriations Remain Unfinished

by Amanda Adams*, 9/12/2006

With the beginning of the new fiscal year less than three weeks away, not one of this year's appropriations bills has been signed into law. The Senate shoulders most of the blame for the standstill, having now passed just two of its 12 appropriations bills. Because there is so little time left, Congress will have to finish up its appropriations work in a lame-duck session after the November election. Last week, the Senate passed its version of the Department of Defense spending bill, only the second appropriations bill it passed this session, the first being the Department of Homeland Security spending bill. Clearly, Senate leadership has not considered appropriations bills a priority this session. Instead of appropriations bills, the GOP leadership has brought up the estate tax roll-back on three distinct occasions, as well as attempted to pass two unpopular constitutional amendments. None of these measures passed, while 10 must-pass appropriations bills have received no consideration.

The appropriations process this year seemed doomed from the start as the Senate did not schedule enough time in session to finish all its appropriations bills. When it adjourns in October, the Senate will have spent 125 days on the job, the lowest count in at least the last 20 years.

The House, on the other hand, has passed every appropriations bill except for a divisive Labor-Health and Human Services (Labor-HHS) bill. The Labor-HHS package was amended in committee to include a raise in the minimum wage that many House conservatives have objected to. Further, House Republicans do not agree on the bill's proper funding totals or funding for some specific programs, with moderate Republicans asking for amendments that would add billions to the Health and Human Services budget. Moderates have also protested the House Appropriations Committee's Labor-HHS proposal that would zero out funding for 56 individual programs.

Despite the time needed to iron out good-faith compromises on these issues, House leaders will most likely wait until the last minute before adjournment to take up the Labor-HHS bill making good compromises next to impossible. And with so little work done this far into the budget cycle, Congress will have to hold a lame-duck session after the November election to complete all appropriations bills.

In order to avoid a government shut down, Congress will have to pass "continuing resolutions" that temporarily fund federal programs until appropriations bills have been signed into law. This year, all the unfinished appropriations bills will most likely be combined into one large "omnibus" bill. This will allow for far less oversight and scrutiny of specific funding levels and will likely lead to program terminations and cutbacks to funding levels that ordinarily would not pass Congress.

For a second straight year, Congress has done a shameful job of fulfilling its most basic duty: appropriating federal resources to keep essential government programs funded.