Robert Bennett: How we got in this federal budget mess

Published: Monday, April 11 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

As I write this, we don't know if the Federal Government is going to be shut down. I have been asked to explain both how we got into this mess and how the budget/appropriations process is supposed to work.

It starts when the president submits his budget, which is only a recommendation. Under the Constitution, the Congress, not the president, determines how much money will be spent, so it is the Congressional procedures that matter. There are three aspects to those procedures — authorization, which says what programs can be funded and at what levels; budget allocation, which says how much can be spent for which programs in the current year; and appropriation, which provides the actual money.

In 2010, all three broke down. Some authorizing committees did not finish their work and Congress did not pass a budget resolution. Those two failures left the Appropriations Committee without clear guidelines in which to work.

In the Senate, the Committee drew up its own budget numbers — the total was billions below the president's recommendation — and reported out the traditional bills that fund all governmental activity. The House, however, did not follow suit, so Sen. Harry Reid could not bring the committee's bills to the Senate floor for a vote. That meant that the end of the fiscal year — Sep. 30 — arrived with no money bills having made it to the president's desk, and an election just a month away.

To keep the government operating, Congress passed a "Continuing Resolution," or CR, authorizing agencies to "continue" spending at the rate of FY 2010. This gave Congress more time to complete the appropriations process, but, like all CRs, it had an expiration date.

After the election, just before that date, Democratic leaders put all of the appropriations bills the committee had approved into a single package and sought to pass it. Republican leadership objected. They wanted to postpone action until after January, 2011, when Republicans would control the House. They prevailed, and a new CR was adopted that pushed the challenge of funding the balance of FY 2011 into the new year.

In January, debates about the level of funding for what was left of FY 2011 began but reached no conclusion. There were further CRs, some cutting the level that could be continued, until Republicans said, "Enough talk. Take our numbers for the rest of the year, or we will let the government shut down when the CR expires." Democrats said, "We would rather have it shut down than take your numbers." The actual dollar difference between them at the moment is about .002 percent of the total federal budget.

I have no idea what happened, as I write this, but, as you read it, you do. Pundits will focus on the politics — which party will reap a reward or pay a political price for its stand on the matter — but that misses the larger point. To get our fiscal challenge under control in the future, Congress must either make the current process work properly or change it. A parade of conflicting CRs is both disruptive and expensive.

I served on the Appropriations Committee and came to understand that the right choice would be to change the process. I tried to get the government on a two-year budget cycle and received good support for that idea, until Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, emphatically said no. He's gone now, so I hope that the current Congress will not only cut spending, but also reform the process by which it is done. Shutdowns are not a good idea.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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