Something very unusual happened on October 1: Fiscal 2019 began with 5 of that year’s 12 appropriations enacted into law.
Some federal budget watchers and appropriations boosters thought this was a monumental achievement that warranted the Congress getting the Washington D.C. equivalent of a ticker-tape parade. It was, they said, a truly stunning development given that the last time a single appropriation (let alone 5) was enacted by the start of the year was for fiscal 2010 when Congress’s own funding was approved on September 30th, 2009.
I wasn’t impressed at all.
1. Passing appropriations by the start of the fiscal year is what Congress is supposed to do. Praising it for completing a routine action is like giving it a trophy just for participating in rather than winning a tournament.
2. Completing work on 5 appropriations means that 7 weren’t enacted by the start of the fiscal year. At best, that 42 percent would earn Congress an “incomplete” in most high schools, colleges and universities in America. In the courses I teach at Georgetown University (including a graduate-level class on the federal budget), I would have given Congress an “F” and not thought twice about it.
3. Closely related to #2 is that, yet again, Congress needed a continuing resolution to prevent a government shutdown for the agencies and departments not covered by the 5 enacted appropriations. As any federal employee will tell you, this is one of the worst possible ways to manage what the government does and how it does it.
4. To get them enacted by October 1, Congress had to perform some legislative magic by turning the 5 appropriations into 2 appropriations right before our eyes. This congressional sleight-of-hand allowed the spending in these two bills to get far less scrutiny than if regular order had been followed and they had been debated and passed individually.
5. This lack of scrutiny meant that Congress was able to do business the old-fashioned way — by buying votes with billions of dollars of additional military and domestic spending and further increasing the budget deficit and national debt. And does anyone doubt that at least some of this additional spending was directed to particular congressional districts and states? In other words, the enactment of these 5 (or was it 2?) fiscal 2019 appropriations very likely marked the triumphant return of the previously banned and supposedly evil earmarks.
For all these reasons, not only does Congress not merit a marching band and floats parading down Pennsylvania Avenue, it actually deserves to be condemned.