Congress will not celebrate fiscal new year’s eve Sept. 30. That’s because: (a) it will not be in town; and (b) it will have nothing to celebrate.
For the 15th consecutive time, the first branch has failed its first duty to fund the government for a full year. It will again fall back on a stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government running temporarily.
Congress’ fiscal delinquency has become chronic. The last time all regular appropriations bills were enacted on time was 1996. If Congress kicks many more cans down the road, Pennsylvania Avenue will look like tin-can alley.
Notwithstanding the new House Republican majority’s “pledge” to restore regular order and put the appropriations process back on track, it has fallen into the same bog as its predecessors.
It’s not a case of committee sloth or gridlock. Appropriators and their staff still work diligently, day and night, to complete their work. It is more of a matter of overloading the system with extraneous matters that eventually slows things down between the chambers, between the parties and with the president.
House Republicans deserve high praise for restoring an open amendment process for appropriations bills — a time-honored practice that Democrats jettisoned two years ago, prompted by dozens of GOP amendments to eliminate earmarks.
Last year, Democrats brought only two regular appropriations bills to the floor before abandoning the process in July. Then, after the elections, they attempted to jam through an omnibus full-year bill in December that they knew couldn’t pass the Senate. That forced the ball into this Congress’ court.
The resulting omnibus continuing resolution wasn’t enacted until April 15 — more than six months late. That, in turn, set the House Appropriations Committee back at least a month, though by mid-July it had reported nine of the 12 regular money bills and sent six of them on to the Senate (which, to date, has passed only one).
The House Republican majority imposed an earmark moratorium this year, and the Senate went along, removing that retardant to action. However, two other procedures remain that prolong and complicate the process.
The Appropriations Committee still legislates on spending bills in violation of House rules. And Members still can offer limitation amendments, prohibiting the use of funds for specified purposes, which is permissible under the rules. Both are popular devices for modifying or reversing executive agency actions.
All this became readily apparent during consideration of the Interior and environment appropriations bill in late July. The Appropriations Committee included 337 legislative provisions in the measure, compared with 298 two years ago, with most of the new ones targeting environmental policies. The committee’s minority report charged that these “special interest riders have become the new earmarks.” The Rules Committee protected all of them against points of order.
Members then began filing floor amendments in the Congressional Record over a 10- day span — 92 at last count, 40 of which were limitation amendments. Floor deliberations dragged on for four days, during which 45 amendments were considered.
And still, the House was only two-thirds of the way through reading the bill for amendment when the leadership pulled the measure on July 28.
There are a variety of explanations for the halt in the process. The most persuasive is that the House simply got ahead of the game and had to shift gears and recalibrate when the new overall spending caps were enacted in the debt limit law because they were out of sync with the lower House budget resolution numbers.
Second, the House considered it futile to move ahead when the Senate showed little inclination to move separately on what the House had already passed.
And third, given the lateness of the hour, it seemed impractical for either chamber to process the remaining bills under regular order.
Consequently, House and Senate leaders and appropriators are already basting an omnibus stuffed turkey for Thanksgiving, with probably little or no opportunity for floor amendments (forget about your favorite side dishes).
As much as both parties eschewed and skewered omnibus money bills in the past as a bad way to legislate, majorities are still prone to fall back on them as the most convenient way to extricate themselves from the mire. All this portends a jam-packed fall season and multitrack tangles as the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction is due to report its recommendations just before Thanksgiving, with final floor votes on the package just before Christmas.
There has to be a better way, and there is. It’s called regular order. Leaders should enforce House rules against legislating major policy changes in money bills, bolstering the role of authorizing committees.
Limitation amendments should be curtailed by letting the Majority Leader exercise his authority under the rules to move to a final passage vote at any time after completing the reading of a bill for amendment.
And all amendments to spending bills should be filed in the Congressional Record before the start of the amendment process. Congress can and should better manage the federal purse strings by exercising greater institutional fealty and self-restraint.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.