One issue that has come to the forefront in the debate over a continuing resolution to fund the government for the remainder of the year is transparency. Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and President Barack Obama negotiated a deal on Friday averting a government slowdown behind closed doors and in secret — without any significant consent of the governed. We now have details of the final legislation, yet the American people were completely cut out of this legislative drafting process.
Republicans and Democrats in the House should be commended for the extensive and exhaustive debate on the original continuing resolution debated and passed last month. As I wrote in The Foundry on March 4th, the House debate on the CR was transparent and allowed participation of the American people.
The House passed a long-term CR on February 19 by a 235–189 vote. The long-term CR funds the federal government for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2011 and contains $61 billion in cuts from FY 2010 levels of spending. The House ended up with the $61 billion total after a week-long open debate with hundreds of amendments filed and a virtually unlimited amendment process. The House ended a five-day debate with over 40 hours of debate, over 500 amendments filed, over 150 amendments offered and over 100 recorded votes. This is extraordinary for the House, and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) should be applauded for this relatively open process to consider a controversial appropriations measure.
The Senate never conducted a similar debate. They did have two votes with very limited debate on a Republican and Democrat plan, yet the Senate failed to schedule a fair and balanced debate on the House passed continuing resolution.
Leaders in the House and Senate went behind closed doors last week and cut a last minute deal to avert a government slowdown. The American people were not presented a specific list of what was in the closed door agreement before the actual text of the continuing resolution was written. In other words, the leaders agreed to the parameters of a deal, but not the actual legislative text of the final continuing appropriations bill to be introduced and voted upon by the House and Senate.
All the American people had were some dueling press releases from The White House and Congressional Leaders. This week, the House and Senate will vote on the deal as memorialized by House and Senate staff and members.
The AP reports that about $15 billion in “cuts” are from funds that were unlikely to be spent.
About $10 billion of the cuts comes from targeting appropriations accounts previously used by lawmakers for so-called earmarks, those pet projects like highways, water projects, community development grants and new equipment for police and fire departments. Republicans had already engineered a ban on earmarks when taking back the House this year. Republicans also claimed $5 billion in savings by capping payments from a fund awarding compensation to crime victims. Under an arcane bookkeeping rule – used for years by appropriators – placing a cap on spending from the Justice Department crime victims fund allows lawmakers to claim the entire contents of the fund as budget savings. The savings are awarded year after year.
This all could have been avoided if the Senate had taken some time to debate a continuing resolution on the Senate floor. Short of that, Congressional Leaders and the President should have been more transparent during these negotiations. At the end of this negotiation, the President and Congressional Leaders should have provided the public the specific details of the deal, so they could asses whether their elected officials were acting consistent with these leaders duty to represent the interests of the American people.
The lack of hearings, debate and open voting process on this deal has effectively cut the American people out of the process. Our nation is founded on the idea of consent of the governed. Participation by the American people does not begin and end on Election Day; it is a continuous process and allows for Americans to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is hard to petition when you are not allowed to know what the government is doing.