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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Congress fails to do its job on annual budget

The Columbian
Published: March 21, 2024, 6:03am

This is no way to run a country. Or a city, business or household.

Imagine, for a moment, if your spouse waited until the final minute to pay the electric bill, openly wondering whether it would be better to simply shut off the lights and the refrigerator. And then imagine if they did it again every couple months.

That is the situation Congress has embraced, periodically flirting with government shutdowns and debating whether to spend the money necessary to keep the lights on. The new finish line is Friday night, a target established months ago and largely ignored until the prospect became dire.

Even if congressional members pass an agreement to keep the federal government fully operational, such chaos and dysfunction should be disconcerting for Americans of all political persuasions. Constant brinkmanship violates lawmakers’ duty to effectively serve the public.

This time, the prospect is a partial shutdown that would impact approximately 70 percent of government functions, including all or part of the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security and several other cabinet-level departments.

Lawmakers and the White House reached tentative spending agreements Tuesday. Even if there is not time to pass that legislation by Friday, it is likely that it will be approved over the weekend, allowing employees to return to work Monday as if nothing happened.

But that would not solve the problem. The issue rests with a penchant for passing continuing resolutions — budget agreements that extend current spending with slight changes. Sometimes the continuances are scheduled for a year, sometimes for weeks, and the process ensures more brinkmanship down the road.

In other words, Congress is failing to do its job, which would mean passing an annual budget. Elected officials have not passed all necessary appropriations bills — the items that comprise the federal budget — on time since 1997. For more than a quarter-century, they have relied solely on continuing resolutions that allow for the process to be held hostage.

As far back as 1988, in his final State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan lamented “budget deadlines delayed or missed completely, monstrous continuing resolutions that pack hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of spending into one bill, and a federal government on the brink of default. In seven years, of 91 appropriations bills scheduled to arrive on my desk by a certain date, only 10 made it on time.”

The situation has not improved, with both parties more concerned about scoring political points than doing the work of the people. This time around, the dispute was over funding for the Department of Homeland Security.

There is a reason all of this sounds familiar. Late last year, in reaching an agreement to avoid a shutdown, House Speaker Mike Johnson chopped the spending process in half, creating two deadlines for potential shutdowns. This month, lawmakers passed a six-bill, $460 billion package shortly before the first deadline. Now, they are faced with another deadline to fund the rest of the government.

Along the way, members of Congress have contributed to budget deficits that have ballooned under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Fiscal responsibility requires thoughtful foresight that leaves time for compromise, rather than last-minute trading that allows each side to boast about achieving their priorities.

The result poorly serves the American public. And it is no way to run a country.