WASHINGTON — When Congress passed the final two budget bills for the year last week, it bucked recent trends by finishing up earlier than usual — even though the bills were nearly three months late.
Congress has a well-established history of missing the annual deadline for finishing the budget and waiting weeks and sometimes months to hammer out details. So ending before Christmas was an unusual episode.
"Sadly, by congressional standards, [it] is early," Brian Riedl, an analyst with the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, told FOXNews.com.
For fiscal year 2005, Congress finished up on Dec. 8, 2004, after the presidential and congressional elections made the future more clear and budget deals less argumentative. For the fiscal year before that, Congress didn't finish the budget until nearly the end of January 2005.
Hashing out the details of a $2.4 trillion federal budget is no easy feat. But critics say that as the budget process draws out, it is more likely that lawmakers will insert budget-busting pet projects into one of the annual appropriations bills, and those depending on the money face the problem of not knowing exactly when it will arrive.
Of course, getting Congress to finish in advance of its Sept. 30 deadline may be more of a fantasy than reality, said Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.
"We've never done that," Rivlin said.
Paying the Bills
Congress considers discretionary spending, about a third of the federal budget, each year. Under the Constitution, the president can't spend budget funds until Congress approves it. The budget covers spending from each Oct. 1 through the following Sept. 30.
After reorganizing the Appropriations committees, Congress started the fiscal 2006 budget consideration process with 12 appropriations bills, one bill fewer than previous years. But the number of bills that finally passed was 11. Lawmakers wrapped the District of Columbia budget into the Transportation and Treasury Department bill.
Other years, like last year, Congress wrapped up spending in one comprehensive piece of legislation called an omnibus bill. That's usually done to get the budget process over with after the deadline has been missed and negotiations seem likely to be eternal.
Riedl said omnibus bills are particularly prone to pork projects.
"By throwing it all into one bill, it becomes one massive Christmas tree bill that Congress has to pass" because of looming deadlines, Riedl said.
Congressional leaders this year were able to avoid an omnibus package, although it wasn't certain that would happen until final votes were taken last week. After a filibuster and late-night negotiations, Republican senators last Wednesday agreed to drop language on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the $453 billion defense-spending bill, enabling its passage. The $602 billion Labor/Health and Human Services/Education bill passed after a contentious battle over spending cuts in those areas.
Not every bill, however, went through the manipulations and maneuvering seen on those appropriations. Early agreement was reached on spending for the Interior Department and the money to run Congress. Other departments soon followed.
Even the bill for the huge, 180,000-employee Department of Homeland Security wasn't the last to finish, with lawmakers coming to agreement in October on the $31.9 billion package.
In addition, Congress has been trying to cut $41 billion from the final tally, meaning pork projects faced slightly higher scrutiny this year.
A Costly Last-Minute Rush
When Congress is late, it must pass one or more "continuing resolutions," to keep the money flowing. The CRs don't authorize new spending, but generally keep spending at levels from the previous year so government agencies don't shut down.
Even with CRs covering costs, federal agencies and state and local governments that depend on money transfers from the federal government face serious problems when the money doesn't show up on time, said Martha Coven, senior legislative associate with the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
As spending stalls because of congressional delays, those planning on starting the programs are left with the problem of not knowing when and if money will be coming.
"They're kind of in a holding pattern," Coven said. "It makes it harder for people to plan and to make programs run effectively."
Keith Ashdown, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense, added that when the budget process takes longer, "there's more opportunity for bad work to be done as well as a little bit of political hanky-panky."
He said delays give more time for lobbyists and special interest groups to insert into the bills their pork-barrel projects — pet projects that might have little to do with national priorities but are beneficial to a lawmaker's home district.
For instance, the omnibus package passed in November 2004 was more than 3,000 pages long. Watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste, counted 13,997 pork projects costing $27.3 billion.
David Williams, Citizens Against Government Waste vice president of policy, said — as far as pork goes — this year is the best in recent memory, even though he guessed there were still between 11,000 and 12,000 such projects in the budget.
He said a major reduction in the number of pork projects was the fact that there were no earmarks in the Labor/HHS/Education bill, a fact for which Williams credited Sen. Arlen Specter, who chairs the subcommittee that oversees that bill. Specter in other years has been a target of Williams' group.
"That's going to take a huge chunk out of our Pig Book," Williams said, referring to his group's annual publication of what it sees as bad spending.
"Maybe next year there will be two bills that will be pork free. ... But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself," Williams said.
Riedl said money has gone to such esoteric projects such as the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and more than $250,000 to combat teen goth culture in Blue Springs, Mo. But as this year's bills neared completion, he said this year looked relatively pork-free.
Rivlin, who was the founding director of the Congressional Budget Office, said in the 1970s, Congress moved the end of the fiscal year from June 30 to Sept. 30, but "they still wait to the very last minute and then don't get it done," Rivlin said.
"The budget is very contentious, it's also very complicated, so there's lots of things to work out," Rivlin said. "If you have more lead time, you can make more serious changes."
She added that delayed spending packages make it difficult to raise spending if needed. Unfortunately, no remedies are available to get Congress to finish any earlier.
The Sept. 30 deadline slips by unnoticed nearly every year because "there are no serious consequences" to missing it, she said.
Rivlin said she and others have argued for years that Congress would be better served by switching to a multi-year budget, but it's never won approval because of lawmaker's concerns that they would be giving up control. Congress also is unlikely to police itself by imposing sanctions since it can change any law that would punish itself.
Rivlin didn't predict that the budget process would be getting any easier any time soon. She said spending pressures are continually spiraling upward — such as aging baby boomers drawing more on Social Security — while downward pressures persist on tax revenues.
"The basic problem is budgeting is just hard, and budgeting isn't going to get simpler until the government gets simpler," Rivlin said.