If it’s April, it must be budget season in Congress—or, more specifically, time for Congress to blow its annual budget deadline. April 15 is the official target. But no one takes that seriously. Often, lawmakers spend an extra month or so hammering out a budget resolution. More often these days, they opt not to pass one at all.
To be fair, forging a budget agreement requires tough debates, painful compromises, and politically fraught votes (three things that lawmakers avoid more than ever). And, in the end, what do you get? A vague, nonbinding blueprint that does little more than alert members as to which spending areas they’ll want to cause a stink about when it comes time to haggle over the appropriations bills that actually fund the government. Look at last year: Remember the self-congratulatory hullabaloo that flowed from Congress when it passed a budget (just three weeks late!) for the first time in five years? It was the dawn of a new era! A return to responsible government! The end of dysfunction! Then appropriations season rolled around, and all hell broke loose. Next thing you know, the House Freedom Caucus had driven out the speaker, the president had issued a rare veto of defense funding, and unsettling phrases like “debt default” and “government shutdown” filled the air. It was only through doomed Speaker John Boehner’s act of seppuku that enough space was cleared for his successor, Paul Ryan, to jam through an omnibus spending package just before Christmas. Despite Republican leadership’s efforts and reassurances, this year’s budget follies are on track to be similarly dispiriting, if not quite so bloody.
No one is more sensitive to how FUBAR this process is than lawmakers themselves. Members know their inability to properly fund the government makes them look bad, and they are forever kvetching about the annual pageant of dysfunction. One of Ryan’s big pledges to his restive troops, in fact, was to restore “regular order” to appropriations, meaning that the 12 funding bills would wend their way through the relevant committees rather than being smushed together in one last-minute, catch-all behemoth. But don’t count on this year’s process going smoothly—or going period. (When I asked a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid if he thought appropriations would get very far, he first laughed at me, then accused me of being on drugs.) Expect maybe two or three funding bills to move before things start to fall apart. In fact, at this point, some Republican members say they’d consider clearing three bills (again, out of a dozen) a success. That is how low expectations have sunk.