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Appropriations Process Wilts in the Sunshine

The Democrats were even worse at processing appropriations bills the last time they were in charge. In 2010, the House passed only two appropriations bills by the time of the elections, then failed to enact an omnibus bill after the elections. The whole mess was shoved off onto the new Republican majority in 2011 and not wrapped up until April 15 in an omnibus bill.

It was fashionable in 2010 to assert that the process was bogged down by all the earmarks that attracted dozens of Republican amendments. However, in this Congress the slowdown persists, even though earmarks have been banned. Policy provisions, placing limits on the executive, are the new bugaboo. These include scores of legislative riders that appropriators pile into their bills in violation of House rules (but that the Rules Committee protects) and limitation amendments (“None of the funds in this act may be used for purpose x”), which are allowed under the rules. Both invite pushback from Senate Democrats and veto threats by the president, further prolonging the endgame.

The seven appropriations bills passed by the House this year (including the defense bill last week) consumed 91 hours over 14 days. All told, 268 floor amendments were considered, of which 112 (42 percent) were limitation amendments (as opposed to amendments increasing, decreasing or offsetting spending).

The Majority Leader has authority under House rules to call a halt to the offering of limitation amendments at any point during their consideration by offering a motion to rise and send the bill to a final passage vote. That may be the only way to curb the seemingly endless appetite some Members have for amendments.

There comes a point at which amendatory overkill threatens to drag down the whole process and with it the country’s reliance on a predictable federal funding stream. The real test of leadership is in balancing the legitimate rights of Members to participate in the process on all money bills (not just the first several), with the larger need for rational and responsible governance.

Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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