Commentary, Featured

Congress Hasn’t Passed a Budget On Time in 20 Years

January 19, 2018

By Arturo Castañares / La Prensa San Diego Publisher and CEO

The US Constitution grants the power to appropriate federal funds exclusively to Congress, but nothing in our country’s founding document requires them to act, as we saw again this week in Washington, D.C.

The federal budget that funds all the activities of our country is divided into 12 appropriation bills that should be passed before the beginning of each fiscal year, which starts on October 1st. Each bill funds separate departments and activities of the government, including the military, education, Social Security, highway construction, and all other funds passed on to states and local governments across the country.

Although they should approve an annual budget each year, the last time both houses of Congress passed a budget before the start of the fiscal year was in 1996, the last year of Bill Clinton’s first term.

Since then, Congress has become increasingly polarized and unable to reach bipartisan agreement on thorny issues like immigration, defense spending, and funding for social programs including Medicare.

When Congress fails to perform their primary function, the federal government is at risk of running out of money for the year, and a government shutdown becomes a real possibility.

As bizarre as that sounds, the US government can actually shut down and stop working, for the most part. Although essential services, like the military, federal law enforcement personnel, and FAA airport traffic controllers continue to operate, non-essential services are stopped, including staffing at National parks, Department of Justice gun background checks, and all National Guard staff and civilian military workers.

Who doesn’t stop getting paid? Members of Congress. They get paid even though they fail to perform one of most important parts of their job.

And, when the budget doesn’t get passed on time, but Congress doesn’t want to face the wrath of angry citizens, they pass short-term funding bills called Continuing Resolutions, also known as CRs. Band-Aids.

The CRs can provide funding for specific federal departments and programs for anywhere from a few days to up to a full year. The process to pass CRs is usually a political deal where programs important to one party are traded for those important to the other.

This may sound like something rare, but, unfortunately, our Congress has passed over 112 continuing resolutions since 1998.

Although sometimes it only takes two or three CRs to get to a full budget deal, in some years, it has taken five CRs, or eight CRs, or even 21 CRs as it did in 2001.
In total, over the past 2o years, our country has gone 1,815 days without a real budget in place.

But, sometimes, Congress fails to reach even a short-term deal for a Continuing Resolution, until finally the government shuts down. Most shutdowns, though, only lasted a day.

In 1980, the first government shut down, really only affected the Federal Trade Commission over a dispute for that department’s budget. 1,600 employees were affected and the total cost was only estimated to be about $700,000.

281,000 workers were furloughed for one day in 1981 at a cost of $90 million.

In 1984 and 1985, half a million workers were furloughed for an afternoon, with a cost of about $50 million each time.

It wasn’t until a major budget battle in 1995 between President Bill Clinton and Republicans over Medicare, education, and the environment that a federal shutdown lasted more than one day.

After Clinton vetoed the Republican budget, 500,000 workers were furloughed for six days in November of that year, then, after a six-week CR lapsed, 280,000 workers were furloughed for three weeks during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

The biggest government shut down, though, was still to come.

In 2013, when President Obama and Republicans couldn’t reach a budget deal because of proposed cuts to the Affordable Care Act, more than 2.1 million federal employees were furloughed. The shut down lasted 16 days in November.

The estimated cost of shutdowns has now been studied and should give Congress billions of reasons not to go down that path again.

A 2013 report found that a two-week partial government shutdown could cut .3 percent from our annual economic growth, and raise unemployment by .6 percent, or about 900,000 jobs.

That’s billion of dollars in lost economic activity and jobs because our elected Congressmembers can’t do their most basic Constitutional job.

This week, we are again facing the real possibility of a government shutdown. We have been operating on CRs since October, and the latest CR expires at midnight on Friday night.

The major sticking point, this time, is that Democrats are demanding that any CR include action on DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that has protected some undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The problem for Republicans is that they need Democratic votes to take action because several Republicans are either against another CR or will abstain.

Donald Trump placed a March 5th deadline to end the DACA program, and Democrats, and even some Republicans, support a legislative solution to help these promising Dreamers, as they are called. Now that both the DACA deadline and the budget are happening at the same time, Congress members are horse trading, and it’s time to make a deal.

Congress must act now to keep the government running and deal with Dreamers in a compassionate, rational, and definitive way. These young adults have gone through background checks, graduated from school, and are now taxpaying adults. These aren’t bad hombres, they are the future of our country.

Enough political games. It’s time for Congress to do real work, and finally earn those government paychecks.

If they don’t, then the next federal government shutdown should start by laying off 535 people we call Congress members and Senators.

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