The Congress That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Just another opportunity for Congress to demonstrate its lack of statesmanship.

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For budget watchdogs, summer does not mean simply the arrival of school breaks and trips to the beach. Summer is also appropriations season in the nation's capitol. Over the course of the next few months, Congress will consider 12 separate bills to fund the government in fiscal year 2014.

In theory, each of these bills are supposed to have passed and been signed into law by September 30, the end of the fiscal year, so agencies can start the new year with a clear understanding of the resources available to them. But that theory is far from the year-in, year-out practice of Congress. In fact, the last time all appropriations bills were passed individually prior to the start of the fiscal year was 1994 and the last time the spending laws were passed on time was 1996, but that was accomplished with an omnibus package of six spending bills jammed together. 

Ensuring that the federal government has funds appropriated to continue operations is the one job Congress is constitutionally mandated to do each year. As much as they talk about the power of the purse, you'd think lawmakers would use it. But time and again Congress can't come together on routine appropriations. Then when the bills are not passed and signed by the president by the end of the fiscal year, we usually see one and sometimes a series of "continuing resolutions" to keep the government running. And, as we saw back in 1995, if the two parties and the two chambers can't agree even on a continuing resolution, the government may shut down until they can agree on something.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

The chairmen and ranking members of both the House and Senate appropriations committee, all long- time appropriators, are new to leadership of those committees. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky has been at the helm since 2011, and Ranking Member Nita Lowey of New York as well as both the chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee (Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Richard Shelby of Alabama, respectively) are new to the top spots this year. 

Will this new leadership be able change the pattern of dysfunction in appropriations, if that is what they wanted to do? Sadly, I don't think so – the current political climate and circumstances make the prospects of getting appropriations done on time this year particularly grim for a host of reasons:

  • The House and Senate both passed budgets to direct the level of spending, but each includes significantly different totals, so there has been little incentive for a conference committee to come together to reconcile the budgets and establish agreed upon spending limits. The House has adopted a top line of $967 billion for FY2014 discretionary spending while the Senate has adopted a $1.058 trillion limit.
  • The Budget Control Act established across-the-board cuts (sequestration) to meet the spending target for FY2013, but it also set top line spending caps for out years, starting in 2014. However, it doesn't look like Congress is paying attention. The Senate ignores the limits altogether and the House approved budget caps that ignore sequestration levels set for the Pentagon and backfills with deeper cuts elsewhere.
  • Congress seems to be having a hard time getting anything done. All of us at Taxpayers for Common Sense were happy see the farm bill defeated, but the bill's defeat was a pretty good indication of how hard it is to get enough votes together to pass anything, especially legislation that continues Washington business-as-usual, through the House of Representatives.
  • The debt ceiling is set to expire (and extraordinary measures will be exhausted) this fall; the opportunity to hold up appropriations in service of shrinking certain parts of the government may just be too attractive for a small group of lawmakers to pass up.
  • [See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

    So it looks like the appropriations process will be just another opportunity for Congress to demonstrate its lack of statesmanship and the difficultly (or unwillingness) of getting lawmakers to agree on budget issues across party lines.   

    The country has grown tired of the gamesmanship and political finger pointing on spending and budget issues. Let's hope the new leaders in appropriations have too. It's not too late to turn the process around and get the job done.     

    Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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