Feds, Funding, Furloughs and the Fiscal Rollercoaster

How we got to where we are in the annual budget mess, and where we’re headed.

By now, it’s routine that federal employees’ pay, benefits and the simple issue of whether they’re allowed to work are held hostage to negotiations over appropriations, the debt ceiling, or whatever pet issue rankles enough lawmakers to bring the legislative process to a halt.

And as if things couldn’t get any worse, it is now commonplace that Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree among themselves about what their spending priorities should be. So before they even begin to negotiate with the other side, they have epic internecine fights.

Meanwhile, deadlines come and deadlines go—some critical, some less so. Let’s look at how we got to where we are today, with thanks to a helpful website maintained by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget: 

  • March 11: President Biden signs American Rescue Plan Act, with expanded unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and a host of other pandemic relief programs.
  • May 28: White House releases $6 trillion fiscal 2022 budget.
  • Aug.1: The “temporary” suspension of the federal debt limit expires. The Treasury Department begins using by-now-ordinary “extraordinary measures” to keep the government afloat, including temporarily raiding federal employee retirement funds. But come Oct. 18, it’s Default Day.
  • Sept. 30: The House and Senate pass a continuing resolution keeping agencies funded through Dec. 3, for what only seems like the millionth year in a row. Biden signs it.
  • Oct. 1: Funding for surface transportation programs runs out, forcing the Transportation Department to furlough 3,700 workers for the day.
  • Oct. 2: Congress belatedly and temporarily fixes the problem.
  • Oct. 12: House passes a debt limit extension lasting until early December. The Senate had passed the extension on Oct. 6.

So we’re midway through this rollercoaster ride, and the car has stalled at the top of an incline, with a steep drop ahead. At the end of the day Dec, 3, the money runs out again. If history is a guide, little to no progress will be made on appropriations issues between now and then. So the question will be: How far will they kick the can down the road next?

Other pay and benefits-related headlines you might’ve missed this week: