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Another federal budget mess looms

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Many conservatives and liberals agree on one Washington phenomenon: The budgets emerging from Congress under the Bush administration are a mess.

"Bush is the second-most fiscally irresponsible president ever," says Richard Kogan, a budget expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington think tank. (The worst, by his measure, was Ronald Reagan.)

At the libertarian CATO Institute, budget expert Steven Slivinski refers to the "Grand Old Spending Party": "President Bush has presided over the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson," he writes in a policy analysis.

In other words, the two, politically far apart, agree that Republicans have not walked their talk of "fiscal discipline."

The fiscal year 2006 ends Saturday. Members of Congress hope to head to the hustings Friday. In theory, by then Congress should have passed all 13 appropriations bills for fiscal 2007. But at this writing, only two – for defense and for Homeland Security – are thought to have a chance of passage.

Those not dealt with in the next several days are likely to be considered in a postelection congressional session in November. It's been speculated, though, that a stopgap continuing resolution will be passed to provide the federal government with enough money to keep going until a new Congress convenes next year.

It has become common for Congress not to pass all appropriations legislation before a fiscal year starts – relying on a continuing resolution to pay the bills. Spending disagreements and deadline bargaining cause frequent delays.

Democrats are chuckling at the situation today. Republicans, supposedly organized and parsimonious, control both houses of Congress plus the White House. But there's no budget yet.

Stan Collender, a veteran budget observer, offers this explanation: "The White House and congressional Republicans have obviously realized that 'cutting spending' won't work as a political strategy." What is different this time, he holds, is that the Republican leadership has consciously decided not to force action on the appropriations bills.

Congressional procedures, even the veto in the Senate, are not a real impediment to making budget cuts, Mr. Collender maintains. But the conservative Republican leadership knows that Democrats and a small group of moderate Republicans could combine at this pre-election stage to block some cuts in discretionary spending, say, on social programs. After the election, such cuts become more politically feasible for moderate Republicans, perhaps even if defeated. So it's expedient to put off these votes for now.

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