Play budget games, win expensive prizes
President Joe Biden’s extra-late budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 was an inauspicious start to the annual budget process. Since then, both chambers of Congress—and both parties—have proceeded to play games with the budget process which could lead to astronomical new levels of spending.
Leap-frogging over any agreement on a joint budget resolution for FY22, the House is proceeding to quickly bring 11 of the 12 appropriations bills to the floor ahead of the August recess, with most of them packaged in an inordinately large “minibus.” The bill left standing alone is the massive Department of Defense (DoD) spending bill, which accounts for nearly half of the discretionary dollars Congress controls via appropriations.
Unfortunately, this delay provides an opening for legislators to push for a topline far above the administration’s relatively modest 1.6 percent increase. Lawmakers from both parties in the defense authorizing committees have made it clear they’ll try to shoe-horn more spending as the annual defense bills authorization and spending bills advance. Senate authorizers made good on this threat. Their just-passed FY22 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) calls for a 5 percent spending boost, $25 billion over the Pentagon’s budget request and $37 billion more than the FY21 enacted levels.
Even without that massive spending hike, the House Appropriations-passed FY22 funding bill still has plenty of fat to trim, such as the 85 F-35s, famously derided by no less than the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee as a “rathole.”
Moving the non-defense bills practically en masse limits opportunities for a defense increase to be offset with decreased spending elsewhere. This is a game Congress has played in the past, though often in reverse: passing the “must-pass” defense spending bill with its big price-tag first, then, when it becomes clear that no agreement can be reached on the disproportionately smaller non-defense spending bills, everyone gets more money to avoid a painful government shutdown or the tough decisions necessary to comply with sustainable spending levels. Without the certitude provided by a jointly adopted budget with broad-based support, this maneuver is likely to result in greater spending.
Despite a deeming resolution already in place establishing the discretionary topline numbers for FY22 and appropriations already well underway, a massive $4.1 trillion infrastructure package is about to kick the whole board over. The plan to pass such an unaffordable monstrosity is to use the abandoned FY22 budget resolution to make use of fast-track, party-line proceedings under reconciliation to jam the greater part of the package, $3.5 trillion, through before taxpayers know what hit them.
Budget resolutions are intended to set the spending and revenue limits and goals ahead of the annual appropriations process in order to inform and be the basis of these subsequent bills, along with any related policy or revenue changes necessary to enact the budget that committees are then instructed to undertake. A budget of this magnitude with far-reaching implications that touch almost every category of spending will no doubt render the current appropriations moving through Congress practically void.
Senators are also playing “hot potato” with the rapidly approaching expiration of the debt limit suspension at the end of July. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is warning that Republicans are unwilling to help pass another suspension or debt limit increase, indicating that Democrats should include it in their ever-growing budget resolution to accommodate a partisan vote. Republicans shouldn’t be so quick to hand off responsibility for raising the debt ceiling when their own willingness to pile on deficit spending has contributed significantly to the current state of play. This perennial gamesmanship—all too typical of debt ceiling considerations—only increases the unwarranted toxicity around an all-but-certain outcome. Instead of passing the blame, legislators could pursue a win-win outcome by coupling debt ceiling actions with reasonable budget reforms that have broad, bipartisan support.
So far, funding the federal government in FY22 has been marked first by delays and now with tactics and moves all aimed at subverting the budget process in order to spend as much as possible with as little accountability as possible. When Congress plays political games with the budget, taxpayers can expect to lose big.