Will we ever again have a budget?

Federal employees and anyone else who would be affected by a government shutdown have had far too many moments this year of white-knuckle tension followed by last-minute relief. Three times (so far), Congress has reached a point of stalemate in debates over the country's budget and has run perilously close to a deadline before pulling back from the brink with an inelegant compromise before the whole cycle starts again.

The temporary funding measure that averted the third possible shutdown expires in November, and there’s little sign that Congress will be any less contentious by then.

The fiscal year-end crisis came courtesy of disaster relief funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Democrats wanted to provide funds to FEMA for disaster aid with no strings attached, while Republicans wanted the funding excluded or paid for by making cuts elsewhere. After the dust settled, it turned out to have been a moot point: FEMA had enough money to last a little longer after all.

So which party loses in this fight? According to an editorial in the Register Citizen, a newspaper serving Litchfield County, Conn., both do.

"The GOP stand was astonishingly shortsighted in upending a public expectation that the government would be there immediately to help when there is a calamitous event,” the editorial reads. However, “the Democrats didn’t fare much better. They decided it was more important to protect subsidies for solar panels and for Detroit to make fuel-efficient cars than to get money quickly out the door to help people who had been left homeless.”

Perhaps the larger question is whether the budget process will ever become easier. The parties have always argued over specifics as the budget goes through negotiations, and passing budgets weeks or months into the fiscal years to which they pertain has long been the rule rather than the exception. But coming within inches of shutting down the government before one side blinks has historically been a rare event.

The signs are that things are not going to get better anytime soon. Writing in Time, Alex Altman described the fight over FEMA funds as a “manufactured crisis with a noncontroversial fulcrum” and said the compromise solved nothing.

“That Congress was able to solve a problem of its own making is no reason for backslapping,” he writes. "All the familiar divisions remain."

In the Washington Post's WonkBlog, Suzy Khimm highlighted five reasons why the November negotiations will make the September crisis look trivial. For starters, the funding at issue will be the entire federal budget, not a small-change line item like emergency relief funds. To reach the latest short-term compromise, the parties agreed to abide by the $1.043 trillion budget target established during the summer’s debate over the debt ceiling and to make across-the-board cuts as needed to meet that target.

As the current deal moves toward its expiration date, the parties appear likely to abide by the target, Khimm writes. This time, though, expect “many turf battles over spending priorities,” she added.

The September battle provided the spectacle of House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), whose district in Virginia was the epicenter of the August earthquake, simultaneously putting roadblocks in the way of disaster aid and demanding that FEMA send aid more quickly to his constituents.

Apart from the obvious irony, “Cantor may ultimately be responsible for the delay,” writes Brian Beutler, on the Talking Points Memoblog. “If he'd just said nothing — never insisted [that] emergency supplemental funds for disaster relief be offset — then disaster aid wouldn't have gotten mired in a budget fight, and the funds might have been easier to come by.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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Reader comments

Thu, Oct 13, 2011 Scott_A Alabama

As voters we have a responsibility to do our best to select the best candidates for public service positions... including congress. How can we really be effective, though when we can't easily get needed information to gauge how well they are doing their job? We need to know what votes they participated in, which way they voted, what sessions they missed and why, etc. so we know who is working for 'us' and who isn't workinf at all, or is representing somone elses interests. We can't keep just firing all politicians.... that costs us huge sums too.... members of congress get a fantastic retirement benefits package and only have to serve a 2 year term to get it.... while we have to slave away for over 20 years to get much of anything ourselves.

Thu, Oct 13, 2011 Las Vegas, NV

The overwhelming concensus is for the Lawmakers to start to make the sacrifices they're so eagerly wanting others to make. They do need to forfeit their salaries for the entire year, due to their own ineffeciency's; After all they are already wealthy. They created the mess in the first place, let them pay for it. Why should tax payers pay for the lawmakers grandeous style of living. They should never be exempt when they messed up the budget, not the people & not the lower paying Federal Employees under GS-13's. There are too many Federal Employees that are Low Income, why should they suffer?

Thu, Oct 13, 2011

This story is typical of today's so-called journalists. We had two years where both the House and Senate along with the White House is in solid control by the Democrat Party and they cannot pass a budget - not to mention that they created the biggest deficiets ever in this country. The story claims the fighting between the two parties is the problem and then targets a Republican. These journalists constantly giving the Democrats a pass and going after the Republicans on everything is one of the main reasons why we have these kinds of problems. The Democrats are never held fully accountable for their actions with the blame, if not ignored, constantly being shifted away from them. You can never make progress when one side has no incentive to be responsible for their actions.

Thu, Oct 13, 2011

In your email is a hidden point in gov't operations today. "Putting roadblocks in the way" is a common discussion among federal employees today. We are required to get the job done. Every time we attempt to get the job done management is throwing a roadblock in our way. "No money for travel to accomplish the task. No money for new equipment to replace the failed equipment or to repair it. No money for required training." The list goes on and on. I heard a federal employee state he felt like someone ties his shoe laces and painted him into a corner at the same time. Hardy might want to explore this avenue to see how deep it goes.

Thu, Oct 13, 2011 DC

I heard a commentator say on the radio today that they didn't expect much legislation passed before the election and that it was a shame that the parties were so divided. How about it being a shame that the election is a year away and these elected officials are failing to do the very thing we elected them for. They need to do the job we the taxpayers are paying them to do - if not, forfeit your salary for this year and don't come back next year

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