Appropriations used to be the core oversight panel, using its venue to examine whether programs were being implemented effectively and efficiently. It did not do “gotcha” oversight but serious work, and almost all of it avoided partisan conflict.
The committee’s norms remain strong, but the magnetic pull of tribal and parliamentary-style politics became especially clear in the 111th Congress, when members of both parties were involved in crafting the bills in subcommittee, with minority amendments considered and often added, a process that extended to the full committee. But when the bills hit the floor, the subcommittee and committee minority members who had participated fully in their panels and vetted the bills, voted — usually in unison — against them.
This year, on most of the bills there is another factor: the decision by House Republican leaders to abrogate the deal they agreed to on the debt limit and opt for bigger cuts on discretionary domestic spending while exempting defense from any of the scheduled cuts.
It would have been tough enough to make the originally agreed-upon cutbacks; the new ones virtually ensured that there would be no bipartisan agreements and that serious confrontation would emerge with the Senate in September ahead of the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
I don’t think that will lead to shutdowns five weeks before the elections (even hard-line leaders are not suicidal). But after a continuing resolution that takes the disputes past the election, there will be a showdown, probably wrapped into the big showdown over the “fiscal cliff.”
These are huge decision points. We need leaders who can lead, and a continuing commitment, when the crunch really comes, to find broad bipartisan leadership agreement and consensus.
The Homeland Security spending bill flap moved from a sign of hopefulness to a warning that more trouble lies ahead.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.