Congress Debates Multitude of Options for FY 2011 Budget and Food Safety

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in with the FY2011 budget, what with all the hullabaloo over deficit reports and the Bush tax cuts. But with the current continuing resolution (CR) set to expire on Saturday, Dec 18, and Congress planning to adjourn at the same time, we’re coming down to the wire. Almost three months after the start of the 2011 fiscal year, Congress is finally making some progress with passing a budget, but is faced with three options: an omnibus bill combining all twelve spending bills into one big bill, a full-year CR, or a short-term CR.

This past week, the House acted first, passing a year-long CR on Wednesday, Dec. 8. A year-long CR is almost an oxymoron: it’s a permanent stop-gap bill. Such CRs are relatively rare, with most lasting anywhere from a few days to a month or two. Congress hasn’t passed a year-long CR since FY2007, when Congress didn’t finish the budget until February 2007, almost halfway through the fiscal year. For some reason, some members of the House Democratic leadership seem to think that it will be easier to pass a year-long CR than an omnibus, possibly because the CR would have lower spending levels (and thus be more palatable to deficit hawks). The CR the House passed essentially set funding at FY2010 levels, which, thanks to inflation, means a (small) cut in real dollars for FY2011. It’s also close to $50 billion lower than the amount President Obama requested in his February budget.

The Senate, however, will probably swap out the year-long CR text with an omnibus. In addition to having slightly higher spending levels, the omnibus also includes various deals and compromises senators hashed out over the past year. It also includes earmarks, in an effort to sway two or three Republican senators to vote for the bill. However, since Congressional Republicans have pledged to oppose earmarks, it will be difficult for Democrats to succeed.

Politics aside, the omnibus is better policy than the year-long CR. In general, continuing resolutions are usually cruder tools than proper appropriations bills. For instance, the year-long CR the House passed last week was only a few hundred pages long, providing only basic revisions to the FY2010 budget. A normal budget for a fiscal year can run thousands of pages long, providing much more detailed budget instructions, including compromises hashed out by legislators during the year. Thus, it is far easier to responsibly adjust federal spending priorities using an omnibus.

Most of the Republican caucus, however, is fighting against both the year-long CR and the omnibus, instead pushing for a short-term CR. They want to delay passing a full-year bill as long as possible, ideally into the next Congress, where Republicans will have more power in both chambers. Republicans would then be able to start cutting spending with the FY2011 budget, instead of the FY2012 budget, which won’t be passed for almost another year. If the omnibus fails to pass the Senate, it seems unlikely that the year-long CR will, meaning Congress would end up passing a one or two month CR. This is probably the worst policy outcome of the three, since it means the federal government won’t have a budget for at least another few months.

Finally, the year-long CR the house passed also includes the food safety bill, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (read all about the the bill here). As noted in this blog, the food safety bill has passed both the House and the Senate, but due to a legislative SNAFU, needs to go through Congress again. The bill originally passed in the Senate by a wide margin, and while a few senators had held it up when it first passed the Senate, they would theoretically be the same senators opposed to a year-long spending bill, meaning the inclusion of the food safety bill should not adversely affect the odds of the Senate passing either a CR or an omnibus. It remains unclear if Republican senators would accept adding the food safety bill to a short-term CR, keeping the landmark food bill's future in doubt.

Image by Flickr user Unity. used under a Creative Commons license.

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