Thursday, August 2, 2012

unintended consequences of government spending deal

The agreement between congressional leaders and the White House to pass a six-month "continuing resolution" [CR] solves one big problem and creates many small ones. It removes the threat of a government shutdown in October over hard-to-reconcile disagreements on spending. That's important to both parties since they fear being blamed for the shutdown and can't be sure who would benefit.

It causes all kinds of problems, however, for the federal agencies who have "new starts," since CRs typically allow only existing programs and only at last year's level. As an article in Politico notes, the ban on new starts would halt a program to improve cyber security in government computers, prevent nuclear modernization programs [insisted on by some Republicans as a condition of approving the new Start treaty with Russia], and force the Coast Guard to delay buying a new icebreaker.

The CR hasn't been written yet, much less passed, and there are precedents for including exceptions. But with hundreds of programs and issues at stake, lawmakers are likely to insist on a "clean CR" rather than a Christmas tree of exceptions.

The deeper problem caused by reliance on long-term CRs is that it prevents the appropriations committee from functioning as intended, and thus weakens congressional oversight and budget control. When budgets become just issues of dollars, and not programs, priorities, and effectiveness, we all lose.

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