Most bizarro budget moves Congress made in 2013

December 20, 2013: 4:00 AM ET
bizarre budget moments
Sure, Congress cut a small budget deal in 2013. But that minor victory can't compensate for many of the nutty things lawmakers did on the fiscal front this year.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

Sealed documents, cowardly maneuvers, losing strategies, and a hypocritical about-face.

Members of Congress haven't been playing with a full deck for several years now when it comes to the budget. But they still managed to come up with some seriously bizarre moves on the fiscal front in 2013.

1. How would you reform the tax code? We won't tell ... for decades

No lawmaker wants to go on the record with a politically unpopular proposal ahead of a long, complicated negotiation.

But keeping such proposals confidential for 50 years -- longer than presidential records are sealed? Seems a smidge much.

Yet that's just the cone of silence the Senate Finance Committee offered senators who agreed to lay out their favorite tax breaks.

Of course, the way things are going on Capitol Hill, tax reform may not actually get under way until December 31, 2064 anyway.

2. Stand up and be counted on the debt ceiling? Um, no thanks

Raising the debt ceiling is a necessary evil if lawmakers want to make good on their spending commitments and don't want the country to default on its debt. But it's also become a politically toxic vote.

So Congress has found clever, convoluted ways to effectively raise the nation's borrowing limit without actually publicly approving an increase.

Twice this year lawmakers agreed to temporarily "suspend" the debt ceiling. Doing so allows the Treasury Department to continue borrowing to pay the country's bills, thereby averting default. Then, when the suspension ends, the debt limit is reset to the old cap plus whatever Treasury borrowed during the suspension period.

The latest suspension expires on February 7.

Don't be surprised if lawmakers opt for the same trick again in 2014.

3. Spending cuts across the board! Oh no, wait...

The forced budget cuts known as the sequester -- widely derided as a dumb way to cut deficits -- were supposed to hit thousands of programs, projects and activities equally.

That is, until they actually went into effect.

The furlough of 15,000 air traffic controllers caused all sorts of hairy delays at airports, public uproar and plenty of media coverage.

So lawmakers did an about-face and loosened up the funding rules so that the furloughs could be canceled. But they left in place most of the rest of the sequester, much to the anger of those most directly affected by it.

4. Shut the government when you don't get what you want. Then reopen it after not getting what you want

A band of conservatives in the House and Senate, egged on by outside groups and ignoring advice from many in the Republican Party, forced a 16-day partial government shutdown in October.

Why? They insisted that Obamacare be repealed. And if it couldn't be repealed, they wanted it delayed.

Neither was ever going to happen. That was clear to everyone, including those pushing the shutdown strategy. Yet they persisted.

Related: What the next debt ceiling fight will look like

As a result, hundreds of thousands of federal workers were furloughed, taxpayers inconvenienced, federal projects and services delayed, and fellow lawmakers from both parties outraged.

To boot, Congress in the end also voted to pay federal workers who'd been furloughed for the time off, since they did nothing to cause the shutdown. That may have been the right thing to do by the workers -- who shouldn't have had to pay for political grandstanding. But let's not pretend the whole exercise wasn't a waste of taxpayer money ... and patience.

5. Oh, look! Congress votes to do its job

The deal Congress finally passed to re-open the government also required lawmakers to do what they, um, were elected to do: Negotiate a budget.

Setting the lowest of expectations, the chosen negotiators cobbled together a deal that will help prevent budget standoffs for at least another year and a half and replace part of the sequester for 2014 and 2015.

That's better than nothing, but not by that much. The deal would still leave in place the majority of the sequester, doesn't move the needle on entitlement or tax reform and leaves open the possibility for another debt ceiling fight this winter, something the negotiators were prohibited from considering in their deliberations.

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