Republican lawmakers in the coming weeks hope to begin voting on several spending bills as the first step toward avoiding a politically embarrassing budget crisis before this fall’s midterm elections.
For years, Congress’ chronic inability to approve individual spending bills has led to one self-imposed budget crisis after another. House members and senators frequently must vote for temporary, stopgap funding just to keep the government open, or massive omnibus spending bills that run thousands of pages with little scrutiny, even from lawmakers themselves.
For businesses that do business with the federal government, that unpredictability can be maddening. Defense contractors like Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., General Dynamics Corp., Raytheon Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. collectively receive hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money each year. Civilian departments like Energy, Health & Human Services, Veterans Affairs and Agriculture collectively spend more than $200 billion annually on contracting for IT, cyber, telecommunications and other consulting services.
But without steady and predictable congressional approval of annual appropriations bills, federal departments and agencies can’t adequately plan acquisitions – often leaving private entities that rely on government spending in the lurch.
Under normal circumstances, Congress would approve 12 separate spending bills that fund different parts of the government – everything from transportation and environmental protection to food safety and national defense. This so-called discretionary spending totaled about $1.2 trillion in fiscal 2018, or 30 percent of total government spending.
But these aren’t normal circumstances. The last time Congress approved all appropriations bills by the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year was 1996. Congressional leaders are desperate to break the losing streak this year.
That’s why House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and other GOP leaders are pushing an aggressive schedule to consider individual spending bills this summer before Congress adjourns for the traditional monthlong recess in August. But election-year politics and divisions among Republicans over spending levels and priorities threaten to slow that breakneck pace.
Conservatives, especially in the House, want steep funding cuts or the elimination of some programs. But those plans can’t win majorities in either the House or the Senate.
President Trump is another wildcard that could upend a smooth appropriations process. He has warned lawmakers that he will not sign a stopgap spending bill this fall – formally called a “continuing resolution” – that doesn’t include funding to expand the U.S.-Mexican border wall.
While congressional leaders like Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., may want to return to regular order on spending, the most likely outcome this year is that lawmakers approve yet another continuing resolution before Oct. 1, delaying further action until a lame-duck session of Congress after the election.