The Problem with Kicking the Can Down the Road

By Tharuni Jayaraman

It’s happening again. As has been reported endlessly this past week, if Congress does not act soon to pass a funding measure, the Department of Homeland Security will shut down at 12:01 AM on Saturday. Notwithstanding the endless speculation and sound bites, the long-term implications for the country of such a shutdown are unclear. Indeed, given that about 85% of DHS employees would likely be considered “essential,” the term “shutdown” might, in itself, be a bit of a misnomer. However, as former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs Juliette Kayyem points out, it is clear that the “shutdown” would have some immediate costs. Those DHS employees who are deemed “essential” would have to report to work even though they would not get paid until the “shutdown” ended. Nonetheless, I am not here to write about the implications of a potential DHS shutdown because, quite frankly, there is not that much more to add.

Instead, I believe that the current game of brinkmanship is indicative of a larger problem with consequences that go beyond those of a potential DHS shutdown. The problem is Congress’ inability (or unwillingness) to engage in the budgeting procedures laid out in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Congress has not passed a budget resolution since the resolution for FY 2010.

To put that in perspective: the last time Congress passed a formal budget resolution was 100 days into President Obama’s first term.

Congress has instead relied on a series of continuing resolutions to keep the government running. Continuing resolutions come about when Congress is unable to complete the regular budgeting and appropriations process by September 30, which is the last day of the fiscal year. In this regard, continuing resolutions are critical, “must-pass” legislation because in the absence of the appropriations that they provide, the federal government could not operate. This is because, under the Anti-Deficiency Act, funds cannot be obligated in the absence of appropriations. Put more simply, agencies cannot – “except in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property” – spend money without Congressional appropriation.

But, the problem with continuing resolutions is that they are just a form of kicking the can down the road. The underlying issues don’t get resolved. Indeed, as explained by the Committee for A Responsible Federal Budget, the current showdown is just one of many “fiscal speed bumps” in store for 2015. Indeed, we will likely hit the debt ceiling in just a few weeks. And, just a few weeks after that, the so-called “doc fix” expires. Then in May, we will be facing an insolvent Highway Trust Fund.

I should admit: I do not know which of the many reform proposals floating around will get the budgeting process back on track. Instead, I can only hope that one of the expected “fiscal speed bumps” will serve as the catalyst for much needed change.

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