FY2016 budget: put up or shut up time for Congress

Congress reconvened Monday after its spring break. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has set a fairly ambitious agenda for his chamber in the coming weeks. That agenda doesn’t appear to include a budget resolution to hit the April 15 target; the two chambers have conference negotiations to work through first.

In Depth host Francis Rose
But McCarthy says the first two spending bills are due on the floor by the end of the month. The Military Construction-Veterans Affairs bill and the Energy and Water Development bill are first up for the House side. Both the Senate and House Appropriations subcommittees will resume hearings this week. The countdown clock for government spending isn’t ticking yet; Congress still has 5 1/2 months to make all those decisions. But the mileposts for a deal — and a return to much-needed regular order — are looming already. So now is the time for Congress’ Republican leaders to push to get the work done, if they want to prove they can govern. Watch how these budget storylines develop in the coming weeks and months:

  • The budget resolution. It would be a nice indicator of where things are headed, but the Congressional Research Service says FY2010 was the last time agencies had one, and that didn’t prevent Congress from (eventually, in some cases) funding agencies. So the resolution becomes a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Still, completing one — even if it’s late — would be a message that this Congress is serious about doing its work.
  • The 12 appropriations bills. They are the real thing. And it’s here where the trades and concessions GOP leaders make will show themselves. Sometimes those trades will involve passing bills with a bunch of Democratic votes. Sometimes those bills will involve whipping their own members mercilessly, or wooing them with what limited treats remain in a post-earmark world. And occasionally deals and concessions may even cause one bill or another to crash and burn. Don’t be surprised if one or more of the 12 bills dies somewhere along the line, necessitating a continuing resolution for at least a short time starting Oct. 1.
  • Sequestration. It’s the wild card in the budget process — again. Any solution is likely to be only temporary like the Bipartisan Budget Agreement of two years ago. Some speculators on the Hill say the Murray-Ryan/Ryan-Murray deal set a precedent that this Congress, and future Congresses, will be forced to match. Since just about everyone agrees sequestration is no way to run the government (although many members like the top-line budget numbers the Budget Control Act requires), another two-year deal may be the most likely outcome. The twist: it may not happen until after at least some budget bills are complete and sent to President Barack Obama’s desk. That could make for some tense, and testy, private negotiations and/or public proclamations between the Hill and the White House.
  • Authorization acts. The annual National Defense Authorization Act gets most of the attention, but other agencies wait for their authorizations just as the Pentagon does. The NDAA has passed 53 years in a row; ending that streak would be evidence that Republicans can’t run things. Authorization acts, as usual, will contain items that don’t seem to be related to the matters at hand; but they should go pretty much as they’ve gone in the past — smoothly and quietly.The appropriations bills, then, will trigger the other events; the others won’t happen without some kind of appropriations. Thus McCarthy’s April 28 aim to have the first two bills on the floor becomes critical. His own calendar has his chamber in session only until May 1, then back May 12 or two weeks, then gone again for the Memorial Day holiday. Work time is short in the coming months.Another timeline hint: look forward to the last two weeks of June as potentially the next important time block of this Congress. Members will be in town pretty much the whole month, but they’ll look forward to having results of some kind — any kind — to take back to their constituents for Independence Day. But the next two weeks shape up to be the foundation for success, or failure, for the rest of the summer. A rocky budget process this spring — or a non-existent one — could derail any chances Congress has to get back to regular order, and for agencies to finally get much-needed clarity about where they’re going fiscally.

Francis Rose is host of Federal News Radio’s In Depth radio show, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. MORE COMMENTARY FROM FRANCIS ROSE: After Denver hospital debacle, VA should leave building to the pros 3 reasons why new SES reform panel can succeed where others have not Why do feds and contractors have such a bad reputation outside DC? Why BRAC is good news for VA, but bad news for DoD and the Postal Service