And why progressives need to fight for more ambitious agency budgets.
October means a lot of things in the political world: the end of a fiscal year and the beginning of a new one; SCOTUS returning from a long recess; and, every two years, the final stretch before a general election. If the congressional appropriations process worked as designed, October would also be the month when federal agencies began implementing their new budgets for the next fiscal year. If only things could work so smoothly.
This Fall’s Fiscal Frontier
In the final hours of September, both houses of Congress passed and Biden signed a continuing resolution that will maintain federal spending at its current levels through December 16, narrowly avoiding a government shutdown. This eleventh-hour deal is hardly unique; continuing resolutions have been used with increasing frequency over the past several decades as a tool to avoid government shutdown, at the cost of maintaining outdated spending levels. Congress is now in a five-week recess. They won’t be back in session until after the midterm elections on November 8.
There are a whole host of reasons to be anxious about the midterms… their significance for future policy options, not to mention electoral democracy, is hard to overestimate. When Congress returns to work, they’ll be grappling with the fallout of the midterms, during a lame duck session, in which they’ll have just about six weeks to pass an omnibus spending bill to avoid another government shutdown.
An omnibus bill (literally “for all”) incorporates all the department-specific appropriations bills, drafted separately by and reconciled between Senate and House appropriations committees, into one whole-of-government spending package. For those unfamiliar with the process, the Senate and House each have twelve parallel subcommittees which draft spending bills for a portion of the government. There are subcommittees on “Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies,” “Defense,” “Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies,” and so on. Currently, both the Senate and House have released draft appropriations bills for FY2023, but they haven’t been finalized.
If the appropriations committees fail to get those department-level bills drafted, reconciled between the parallel subcommittees, voted on, passed, and signed by the president before mid-December, they’ll have to pass yet another continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.
This is a profoundly inefficient, broken process with serious ramifications for federal agencies every time their next year of funding gets delayed. And they’ve been delayed every year since 1997. A Pew Research analysis of congressional data shows that though the delays have gotten markedly worse over the past quarter-century, Congress has struggled to meet its own appropriations deadlines since at least the 1970s. You’d think at some point in the past fifty years, they’d have decided to reform the budgetary process..!
OMG (a.k.a. Omnibus Makes the Government)
We’ve decided to make this October “Omnibus Awareness Month.” We’ll be tweeting every weekday @revolvingdoordc about a different federal agency whose budget and resources matter for implementing progressive priorities. Our first threads are on the National Labor Relations Board and the Department of the Interior. You can find them all archived at the #OmnibusMakestheGovernment hashtag.
Broadly speaking, government capacity is one of the major centers of gravity in our work. Along with the presidential nomination and Senate confirmation process for federal agency leadership, it is the annual appropriations process which most deeply shapes and reshapes government capacity.
Already, dozens of agencies don’t have the resources they need to fulfill even their basic functions. A sufficiently ambitious budgetary proposal would not just stem the bleeding, but facilitate agencies improving their regulatory processes and reinvigorating enforcement of existing laws for the public benefit. Of course, there are plenty of forces (like the right-wing judiciary and the Chamber of Commerce) who are dead-set against reinvigorated agency activity.
But that’s exactly why progressives need to be vocal about their priorities in this appropriations process, so that the tug-of-war in budget negotiations isn’t between stasis and destruction.
So many progressive interests, from cracking down on illegal union-busting to promulgating tighter air pollution rules to preventing evictions in public housing, require a level of staffing and resources at federal agencies that they increasingly do not have. We’ve written before about agencies doing “less with less” (quoting former IRS commissioner John Koskinen). Across the board—with a few aggressive exceptions, namely the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security—federal agency budgets have seen sustained cuts (especially accounting for inflation and population growth) over the past decade plus.
Some of the shoddiest work at agencies with important mandates, like the deeply flawed greenhouse gas database maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency which systematically undercounts emissions from oil and gas infrastructure, is partly a consequence of insufficient agency resources. It’s important to recognize that even the best leadership at a federal agency can only accomplish so much with an insufficient budget, especially as their powerful corporate opponents have more resources than ever to fight accountability and government regulation. That’s true whether we’re talking about the FTC’s Bureau of Competition enforcing antitrust laws or the Federal Maritime Commission combating ocean carrier consolidation or the Department of the Interior managing inactive yet high-emitting oil and gas wells.
To highlight some of our longstanding work on this beat:
Our former research director Eleanor Eagan’s piece “Democrats Need to Fight for a Government That Works” in the American Prospect this summer lays out our case broadly for why progressives should care about the appropriations process. Another of our big-picture arguments about government spending was made by Max Moran in “To Save the Climate, Hire More Civil Servants,” where he argues that the kind of civil service the federal government hires will determine how we respond to climate disasters. (Another reason to fight the Pentagon’s ballooning budget.)
Here’s our Fatou Ndiaye quoted in E&E News last week about the challenges for agencies implementing the Inflation Reduction Act: at “practically all agencies we examined, except DOE, we saw capacity pitfalls undermine the work we wanted to see done.” The E&E piece also highlights our report from last winter on the “Climate Capacity Crisis: Attrition at Climate Agencies and Immediate Steps to Address It.” Sadly, agencies have not yet rebounded from the past decade of austerity budgets (and Trump’s campaign of destruction), so much of what we wrote back then remains accurate. This omnibus could be a chance to kick-start some serious increases in climate agency funding, but much of that will depend on public pressure and the incentives of whoever controls Congress post-midterms.
There’s also Dylan Gyauch-Lewis’s report on “Making The Antitrust Division Competitive: A Look At Capacity As Biden Revitalizes Enforcement,” and a subsequent blog post after Biden released his proposed FY2023 budget, which highlighted increased funding for antitrust regulation as “one of the bright spots in an otherwise uninspired budget.”
Our wonderful former intern Glenna Li wrote the still-too-salient piece “President Biden’s Best Agency Is Starved for Cash” on the National Labor Relation Board’s abysmally low funding, which prevents it from being the robust ally it wants to be during this time of record union organizing.
Toni Aguilar Rosenthal and Mekedas Belayneh wrote in the wake of the baby formula shortage about the “Decades-Long Food Failure at the FDA,” where a stagnation in funding over the past decade means that the Food Safety Modernization Act has never been fully implemented.
This five week stretch before the midterms, while Congress is in recess, is an important window of opportunity for groups who still want to make their voices heard on the appropriations process. Even though the midterms are a massive wildcard, the need for progressives to fight for more ambitious non-defense federal spending is perennial and profound.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: