In theory the bills would be passed and signed by the president by Oct. 1, the start of the government's new year. Rarely does it happen, and it's not going to happen again this year. As The Hill, a newspaper specializing in Capitol Hill, headlined, "Congress goes 0-12 on spending bills."
Typically the minority party blames the majority for the constant delays. The Republicans termed the sluggish pace of work on "a Democratic failure to lead" owing to "election year panic." The Democrats blamed Republican obstructionism. Truth is both parties are guilty. The last time all the spending bills were passed on time was 1995.
This makes it tough on the government agencies that are left largely in the dark about how much money they're going to get and when they're going to get it.
To buy time while it wrestles with the spending bills, Congress typically passes a continuing resolution that authorizes government agencies to temporarily continue spending, usually at current levels. Congress is currently at work on such a stopgap measure to push off dealing with the appropriations bills until after the election.
The continuing resolution, and often it continues into the next calendar year, is seldom a vehicle for new spending initiatives or substantive legislation. But the Obama White House has complicated matters by asking the Democrats to add $20 billion or so to the bill, including money for schools, the Postal Service, child care grants to settle lawsuits against the Agriculture and Interior departments and to address a backlog of Social Security disability claims.
Whatever its merits, this spending should be addressed as part of the regular appropriations process. But stopgap bills have the advantage of being must-pass legislation. Otherwise the government starts to shut down. And this bill is likely the last major piece of legislation out of Congress before the election.
If Congress runs true to form, the stopgap bill will be replaced by an omnibus spending bill that raps up all the unpassed appropriations measures into a single huge and untidy money bill that is a magnet for earmarks.
Last March, congressional Republicans - determined to show they were tough on spending - loudly proclaimed a one-year moratorium on earmarks, the personal pork projects beloved by lawmakers. But that was before the Republicans' political fortunes brightened considerably. Now that the GOP might retake the House, the more senior Republicans - who stand to become committee and subcommittee chairs - are having second thoughts about the earmark ban.
And so the spending cycle threatens to resume. It would all be so much simpler if Congress would only do its work on time.