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In our opinion: Congress again fails to pass a budget. This can only end badly

Americans elect representatives to do the hard work of ensuring prosperity for the future. Their failure to do so portends dire days ahead

SHARE In our opinion: Congress again fails to pass a budget. This can only end badly

The flag flying over the Capitol is lowered to be given to the Ginsburg family as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol, Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Washington.

Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

First, the good news. The federal government won’t shut down in the middle of an election season.

Now, the bad news. By passing another continuing resolution, Congress and the president have assured that their perpetual failure to pass a new budget, let alone their failure to come to terms with a massive annual deficit and a ballooning nation debt, will not be a serious subject in this presidential campaign. That’s a loss for the American people, and it masks what ought to be one of the biggest issues facing candidates.

President Donald Trump signed the latest continuing resolution just after midnight Thursday. It keeps the government funded through Dec. 11, well after Election Day. Perhaps a lame-duck Congress might tackle the 12 funding bills needed to enact a new budget at that time, but we doubt it.

A continuing resolution simply continues funding the government at previously approved levels. Syndicated columnist George Will has facetiously suggested Washington’s NFL franchise, now in search of a new nickname, should call itself the Continuing Resolutions. That isn’t too far-fetched. Since 1998, Congress and the White House have approved 117 of these, or between two and 21 per year.

It’s also not inappropriate for a team in search of an intimidating moniker. Continuing resolutions are a scary way to fund governments. By failing to do the hard work of deciding which agencies and programs deserve funding, which are inefficient and should be eliminated, or which should receive less money until they can meet certain benchmarks, lawmakers put federal spending on autopilot. They are not assessing trends, nor confronting the growing difference between income and expenses. 

Bypassing any sense of commitment leaves them free to demonize their political opponents, but it puts taxpayers in a tough spot. 

Of course, much of the federal government already is on autopilot, by design. Medicare and Social Security, for example, continue automatically from year to year. This was designed to protect these popular programs from political whims, but it has set them on a collision course with disaster. Social Security trustees said last April that the trust fund will be exhausted by 2035. However, that was before the novel coronavirus put strains on the economy that surely have brought that date closer.

In addition, Trump’s payroll tax holiday, intended to help workers during the pandemic, will rob the trust fund of income and further deplete it, at a time when the baby boom generation is beginning to hit retirement in full force.

This week’s continuing resolution doesn’t just carry on the status quo. It adds $8 billion for several nutrition programs seen as important in light of the pandemic, including programs for schoolchildren. It includes $30 billion for an old FDR-era New Deal program the president has used to help farmers make up for the damage caused by his tariffs, which have closed some international markets.

It also adds money to complete the 2020 census, which is critical for deciding the number of congressional seats for each state, as well as for apportioning funds from several federal programs.

Big-picture negotiations over the budget have been reduced to small skirmishes over these types of additions whenever continuing resolutions become necessary. Republicans once had the political courage to hold the line and risk government shutdowns over larger economic principles. Now, both sides agree a shutdown would be worse, politically, than simply agreeing to stay on a well-worn, expensive path.

Several lawmakers in both parties have bemoaned the inability to draft a new budget. But it simply isn’t enough to speak the right words.

With the annual federal deficit now well past $3 trillion and the national debt approaching $27 trillion, that is an irresponsible approach. Americans elect representatives to do the hard work of ensuring prosperity for the future. Their failure to do so portends dire days ahead.