Spending Stalemate May Stretch Appropriations Blockade Beyond 2014

The budget impasse that could result in a continuing resolution for the coming fiscal year is so deep that many federal agencies may operate well into 2015 on stale spending plans that date to 2011.

Consumed by debates about sweeping fiscal goals, party leaders and the White House have set little priority on the time-consuming and politically challenging task of reconciling their huge differences and hashing out detailed instructions for federal agencies through the annual appropriations process.

That means that even as appropriations committees move forward with bills and House leaders cautiously push some measures toward the floor, Congress is all but certain to turn to work on a continuing resolution after the August recess for the 2014 fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1. With midterm elections coming next year, the political calendar suggests that any CR will likely leave agencies on budget autopilot for at least the initial months of fiscal 2015.

No regular appropriations bill were enacted in the last three election years, 2008, 2010 and 2012.

"I hope that we would look in the mirror at the way that we run this place," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the ranking Republican on the panel overseeing funding for the State Department. "It causes more inefficiencies than the IRS."

With no common budget resolution agreed to by the chambers, Democrats and Republicans are divided by a $91 billion gap in the overall level for discretionary spending. The House is proceeding with its bills based on a $967 billion top line, while Senate Democrats are writing bills with $1.058 trillion in overall spending.

"The worry I have is that appropriations bills are not going to see the light of becoming law. It’s enormously frustrating," said Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Bills advancing in the coming days display the divide between the chambers through their allocations and through myriad policy provisions that have been inserted into the spending bills.

House appropriators will on Wednesday consider the Financial Services-General Government bill, which includes provisions regarding abortion and the implementation of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial services overhaul (PL 111-203). The GOP-written plan also would severely cut the budget of the IRS, a response to the controversy over the IRS targeting of political groups seeking tax-exempt status. Unwilling to delve anew into many controversial topics, Republicans and Democrats opted earlier this year to leave in place the fiscal 2012 appropriations law regarding programs funded by the Financial Services bill and used a CR to fund them. This also froze the spending decisions for dozens of other agencies funded in the Financial Services bill.

That’s also the case for the State-Foreign Operations bill, also likely to be included in a CR for both fiscal 2014 and the early part of fiscal 2015.

The State-Foreign Operations bill is among the last bills that appropriators brought forward for this year, with only a House subcommittee markup so far announced.

The most likely candidates for new fiscal 2014 appropriations include the measures on which both committees already have acted: the Agriculture (HR 2410, S 1244), Commerce-Justice-Science, Homeland Security (HR 2217) and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bills (HR 2216), as well as the Defense bill (HR 2397). These five were included in the fiscal 2013 package (PL 113-6) as new appropriations, with a CR covering the seven unfinished bills.

The difference in the top-line spending means there’s little chance that lawmakers will do new versions of any appropriations bills for fiscal 2014. Republicans are sticking for now with a roughly $967 billion spending cap on discretionary spending, reflecting the 2011 Budget Control Act (PL 112-25) while seeking to ease a restriction made by this law on defense spending. Democrats want to replace the sequester demanded by the law with a mix of new revenue and alternative spending cuts and restore the law’s original $1.058 trillion budget cap.

"We’re heading for a CR right now, unless something happens," said Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, adding that a broader budget deal in the fall could pave the way for completion of work on some spending bills.

"There’s always a chance to do something. We could be here until Christmas," Shelby said.

The midterm election in 2014 will "exacerbate" the difficulty in getting spending bills done for fiscal 2105, especially if Democrats and Republicans have not resolved their disputes about the budget, Shelby said.

Dan Coats of Indiana, a senior GOP appropriator, said appropriations will remain difficult to complete until the parties reach a substantial agreement on the budget, one that extends beyond the simple question of how much to spend in fiscal 2014 and tackles larger issues such as paying for entitlement programs.

"The day after the ’14 election, the presidential election starts and now we are into 2017 before we address this," Coats said. "It gets harder every day that goes by that we don’t do a bigger deal."

Geoff Koss contributed to this report.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Congress.org