While members of Congress ended 2013 congratulating themselves for passing a budget, the media missed the fact that the agreement doesn’t actually avoid a government shutdown. The deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) provides simply a blueprint for government spending. Congress must still pass legislation detailing specific spending before January 15, when government’s spending authority expires. Government still faces a potential shutdown in a little over a week.
The budget agreement passed by Congress in the closing days of last year provides what is called the “top-Line” number, setting the overall level of discretionary spending. Congress still has to pass appropriations bills authorizing specific spending for thousands of government agencies, departments and programs. While there is agreement on the total amount of discretionary spending, there is far less agreement on how this spending is allocated. These agreements will have to be reached by the 15th, of the government would shut down again.
There is no expectation that this will happen, of course. It would a bit embarrassing if, after such loud self-praise for avoiding a shutdown, Congress allowed it to happen again. Even if there isn’t final agreement on the twelve separate appropriations bills, Congress can pass another stop-gap spending bill. It is a good reminder, however, of how quickly Congressmen are to congratulate themselves for even unfinished work. It is kind of like going to your boss and saying, “I’ve decided on a plan to do my job better. Can I have a raise now?”
In addition to final spending bills, Congress will also want to make another attempt to pass a farm bill. The current programs have been operated under temporary extensions for over a year. The farm bill is a bit of a misnomer, as the overwhelming amount of spending in the bill is for the food stamp program. While the actual agricultural programs don’t spend as much money, they have more consequences because they greatly distort the agriculture market.
The budget and farm bill will dominate the first few weeks of the Congressional calendar. Little else is likely to happen until after the House GOP retreat and President Obama’s State of the Union address at the end of the month.
So, Congress will begin 2014 finishing the work it didn’t complete in 2013.