Last week, Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., signaled her chamber already has begun to lay the groundwork for an omnibus budget bill in September, CQ Roll Call reports. Instead of debating on their own merits each of the 12 spending bills that fund government agencies and programs, Congress would bundle all of them into one massive package and rush it through the voting process at the 11th hour.
This type of rushed, bloated spending legislation is guaranteed to include ineffective programs and those outside the proper scope of the federal government, as well as giveaways to corporate cronies and pork projects. Current and future taxpayers will be on the hook to fund all of them. With a half-trillion-dollar deficit expected to pile on top of the $17.5 trillion debt this year, Congress’ failure to budget according to its own rules is egregious.
It was less than two months ago that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., expressed optimism that an early start to the appropriations process would allow Congress finally to pass all 12 spending bills “on time, on budget and under regular order.” Mikulski similarly declared the budget process to be on its way “back to regular order,” and said the Senate is working at a “brisk pace”.
Fast forward to today. Nearly all of that optimism has faded as political maneuvering has all but vanquished the prospect of “regular order” in the Senate. The House has passed six appropriations bills, which now must move through the Senate and then be signed by President Obama before becoming law. The most recently passed House Energy and Water bill faces a veto threat from the Obama administration, adding further uncertainty to the process.
We can cue the excuses and partisan blame game over the next several weeks as the gridlock is likely to continue. Despite appropriators’ initial momentum, the dysfunction that characterized appropriations in 2013 seems to have returned. Unless substantial headway is made, it is likely Congress will resort to a either a 1,000-plus-page omnibus or a continuing resolution—an extension of current policy at the current or higher level— to push more than $1 trillion in spending through the process without due diligence.
Simply following the budget process Congress ascribed to itself should be obligatory. But Congress has not passed all 12 12 appropriations bills—each of which funds specific areas of the government—since 1997. And although the process is designed to foster debate to improve the likelihood representatives prioritize spending in accordance with the national interest, lawmakers have avoided using the budget process as intended. Instead, Congress waits until the last minute to use the threat of a government shutdown to ram through bloated stopgap measures. As former Budget Committee staffer Patrick Louis Knudsen, put it:
“Lawmakers no longer miss budget deadlines; they breach them deliberately and regularly, obliterating any notion of a fiscal year as the government runs on a series of temporary spending measures.”
Lawmakers’ failure to abide by their own rules erodes democratic procedures and cedes undue power to bureaucrats in federal agencies. Instead, Congress should return to regular order and debate the merits of funding certain programs instead of simply signing off on across-the-board funding increases. To truly revive the power of the purse, lawmakers should consider a new budget process that enhances Congress’ constitutional role to limit out-of-control government spending and debt and reins in the unchecked power of Washington agencies.