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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