Spring has led to summer, which leads to fall, which leads by current custom to another round of “fiscal cliffs.” There are four that reach a relatively high level of gravity: (1) a run-in with the debt limit, expected between mid-October and mid-November; (2) the expiration of the annual agency appropriations (with a hard deadline of September 30 / October 1); and both (3) pending Medicare reimbursement cuts under the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) provision, and (4) expirations of several temporary tax cuts, both at the turn of the calendar year. Beyond those, there is plenty of other remaining unfinished public business (you have read about the conflict over the Farm Bill, for example).
We have talked a fair amount about the debt limit, which carries the greatest potential for damage to the nation’s well-being. But it is worth providing a bit of additional background on the annual appropriations bills, because they too are looking increasingly fraught as the hours of the Congressional session tick away. (In contrast, you can bet that the Medicare SGR provision will be de-fused with another “doc fix,” and virtually all of the remaining temporary tax cuts will be extended for yet another round, both more with Kabuki than with true drama.)
For the record, the last instance when the Congress passed all of its appropriations bills on time was September, 1994, for the 1995 fiscal year – so just short of a fifth of a century ago. Some might by reflex refer to such a Congressional session as “normal,” but clearly, at least by the standard of the frequency of achievement, it was anything but.
In every year since, at least some federal agencies did not have their appropriations on time. This is in the interest of no one – even those who have a low estimation of the value of government. Presumably, high on the list of reasons for skepticism about government are inefficiency and waste – and uncertainty about and delays of agency funding clearly add to waste and inefficiency.
Over the last few years, however, with regularly scheduled brinkmanship over agency funding, the end-of-fiscal-year deadlines have become increasingly tense. And this year, the tension reaches a new high, for several reasons that are worth explaining here. Let’s look at what the Congress has been up to.