“Rumors” is a bar in Washington, D.C. (Never been there.) Rumors are also all we have to go on in anticipating a deal coming out of the budget-resolution negotiations this month.
The rumor is that a deal is relatively close, but still not in hand. That makes life a bit tricky for those outside the room. Virtually the entire purpose of this negotiation is to settle upon a number for the total annual appropriations – a so-called “302(a) allocation” – for the ongoing fiscal year (2014). This is small ball, not a grand bargain. By the ideal-world calendar, the appropriators would have received that total number on April 15, and that entire process would have been finished on September 30,. So now, instead of the appropriators receiving their target five and one half months before the fiscal year, they are waiting for the number two and one half months into the fiscal year. (No pressure, guys.)
Why is that a problem? The toughest annual appropriations decisions are those over the last few dollars. And it is virtually impossible even to prepare for those decisions if you do not know even to a close-enough-for-jazz tolerance how many last few dollars there are going to be.
But beyond that point, the appropriators’ ambition this year was to do legislation a little more tailored than a last-year-plus-or-minus-X-percent across-the-board full-year continuing resolution (CR), which has been the highly unfortunate recent pattern. Even those most viscerally opposed to government as an institution should reject that approach, and instead want appropriations laws that dig much deeper – that perform “oversight” to weed out and disproportionately cut or repeal the least-cost-effective programs.
At least to take a crack at such meaningful legislation, the appropriators asked for their 302(a) allocation to be determined by about a week ago. Without that number in hand, and with the current CR expiring on January 15, the chances of further short-term CRs and still-later final appropriations legislation are increasing by the minute. And the shorter the duration of any real appropriations legislation, the less the potential beneficial impact of any well-chosen adjustments, the harder for well-meaning executive branch managers to do their jobs, and the more-abrupt any changes of appropriations levels need to be to hit an annual total much different from the annual rate of the initial part-year CR.
But it is not dreadfully surprising that the budget-resolution negotiators are having a hard time delivering their final numbers. The substantive preferences of the House and the Senate have little in common. And especially in the House, but even in the Senate, there is considerable diversity of opinion within the majority. A deal cut by the House majority’s negotiator could be rejected by his own caucus and so rendered null, void, and an enormous waste of time and loss of face. Therefore, the negotiation entails frequent consultations with the leaderships and at least indirectly with the full caucuses, which itself takes a lot of time.