Congress praised itself for doing this week what it should have done by last September, and then, satisfied with avoiding yet another crisis of its own making, left the capital for a two-week spring break.
By comfortable margins – 73-26 in the Senate on Wednesday and 318-109 in the House on Thursday – lawmakers approved a spending bill that will keep the government operating until Oct. 1, the start of the new federal fiscal year.
Had Congress not acted, there would have been a government shutdown next Thursday when temporary, stopgap spending bills enacted last fall would have expired.
Passage of that bill this week, enabling the government to spend $982 billion for the 2013 fiscal year, is the third potential crisis Congress has avoided this year.
There was the year-end “fiscal cliff” when the 2001 and 2003 George W. Bush tax cuts were set to expire – Congress approved a deal on Jan. 1 to avert the cliff. And, Jan. 31 brought final approval on a measure to extend the government’s borrowing authority before it expired. This also avoided a shutdown and a repeat of the 2011 debt-ceiling showdown that dented the U.S. credit rating.
The funding bill includes the $85 billion across-the-board spending cuts for the year, called for in the Budget Control Act that ended the 2011 debt-ceiling standoff. The full effects of those cuts in the form of furloughs and curtailed services has yet to be felt, but some are irate over such dramatic money-saving moves as the canceling of White House tours. (The White House says it’s the Secret Service’s doing, not the president’s staff.)
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, angrily declared: “Agency after agency acts surprised that a law signed by the president 19 months ago actually meant what it said.”
Actually, the agencies aren’t the only ones surprised. Probably so are most members of Congress. The act was meant to be so draconian – automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion over a decade – that lawmakers would be forced to agree on a long-term deficit-cutting deal rather than see the act go into effect.
This week, Congress did somewhat soften the blow by allowing certain agencies – including the Pentagon, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Justice Department, the Agriculture Department, the Commerce Department, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Science Foundation – to pick and choose where cuts should be made.
Only a giddy optimist would think these deals signal the end of partisan brinksmanship. But perhaps they buy a quiet summer – at least until August, when the debt ceiling must be raised again.