Appropriations Dysfunction Isn't Going Anywhere

The congressional budget process probably won't get back to normal anytime soon.

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Editorial cartoon satirizing the government shutdown.

This week, the House Rules committee released the text of the omnibus appropriations bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2014 (and yesterday, the House passed a three day continuing resolution to make sure that we don't have another shutdown before the omnibus passes). We're still combing through the bill here at Taxpayers for Common Sense and we'll be updating our list of findings on an ongoing basis, so if you're looking for details of how the Department of Defense tries to make some cuts look deeper than they are or how the House and Senate "compromised" on Army Corps of Engineers spending by proposing more spending than either chamber recommended, visit us online.

But as important as the details of the omnibus bill are, this process also begs us to step back and look at the process by which appropriations bills are passed – how it is supposed to proceed, how it is proceeding and what we can expect (and hope for) next year.

In theory, the way the budget process is supposed to proceed is pretty clear: Early in the year, the president proposes a budget; the House and the Senate each pass budget resolutions; the two chambers conference to set top-line spending levels for discretionary spending; and the appropriations process allocates funds among the agencies. But we all know it has been a long time since we've seen that process (and even this year, the administration's budget request will be at least a month late).

Prior to 2013, the last time both chambers passed budget resolutions was 2009, and while I think most political historians would not call the budget agreement reached in December a traditional "conference," it did produce the spending levels that govern the current omnibus bill. This $1.1 trillion, 1,582 page omnibus bill (plus 1,008 pages in the joint explanatory statement) was posted Monday night at 8:08 p.m. and will likely be voted on today. So while some legislators may call that "three days," the text of the bill, if it is voted on at noon today, will have been available for review for about one minute a page. Even putting aside the monumentally wasteful government shutdown that led to December's budget deal, fiscal year 2014 is a low point in terms of process and transparency.

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

Looking ahead to fiscal year 2015, there is one important piece of good news: December's budget deal set spending levels not just for the remainder of fiscal year 2014,but also for fiscal year 2015. So in theory, Congress could take up appropriations bills, subcommittee by subcommittee, hold hearings and pass all 12 bills prior to the start of fiscal year 2015 on October 1 of this year. The last time that happened was 1994, a full 20 years ago.

I'd love to say that I'm optimistic that this summer's appropriations process will be a model of procedural fairness and transparency, but given recent history – and looking at who is in Congress – I can't say I expect smooth sailing. More than half of all members of the House of Representatives have not yet experienced a "regular order" budget cycle. Less than 20 percent, or 86 members, were in office back in 1994 when appropriations were both regular order and on time, and of those 86 members, only 32 are Republicans, so there simply are not too many members with the experience of being in the majority for a functional appropriations cycle. Experience is certainly not the only indicator of success, but knowing how to get something done sure does make it easier.

Another critical component to achieving success in appropriations or any other endeavor is will, and that is the big open question about this Congress. Does the 113th Congress have the will and desire to exercise the power of the purse that keeps government running without interruption and without what has become the usual series of short-term crises? The ideological divides in the House in particular haven't decreased since the shutdown showdown last fall, and with mid-term elections on the horizon, my guess is that this Congress will, unfortunately, continue the 20-year history of appropriations dysfunction.

Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

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