Once the Deciders on Spending, Appropriators Now Follow the Leaders

There’s little doubt that if the two lawmakers who share control of the budgets of most federal programs had their way, fiscal 2014 would have started Oct. 1 with the federal government operating on a normal basis.

But Congress clearly is not setting budget and spending priorities the way House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers or Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski would like. Instead, the government shutdown has highlighted the dramatic change in power that has diminished the influence of what once were two of the most powerful committees in Congress.

Rogers ended up as the floor manager of a continuing resolution (H J Res 59) that divided the Capitol because of contentious amendments barely three weeks after introducing the stopgap plan with a decidedly different message.

“This bill is free of controversial riders, maintains current funding levels and does not seek to change existing federal policies,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Mikulski has been one of the top Democrats in the Senate firing back at Republican attempts to go after the Affordable Care Act through the CR, but the Maryland Democrat is coming to the spending battle with no spending bills in her pocket. Although her committee passed 11 of 12 appropriations bills this summer, none moved to the Senate floor. In the House and the Senate, appropriators are taking a back seat to leadership priorities that are based not on the traditional exercise of congressional power, but on high-stakes brinkmanship to build bigger political power.

Over the recent raucous years of upheaval in Congress, the biggest change for appropriators came in 2010, when they lost their power to deliver money for specific projects and causes through earmarks. That capped several years of diminishing power for the spending panels as partisan battling over budgets grew more intense, bottling up appropriations measures.

Rogers and Mikulski have been working against steep odds to reverse this. They struck an early partnership in December, when Mikulski became chairwoman and worked with Rogers to get five new spending bills into a fiscal 2013 appropriations wrap-up package in March, leaving only seven unfinished. That came despite long odds after the bitter debates over the fiscal cliff and Superstorm Sandy relief efforts.

The duo wanted to build on this success and talked about trying to get new measures enacted for fiscal 2014. But both were working from entirely different overall spending levels for discretionary spending — the Democratic House at $1.058 trillion and $967 billion for the House, a sequester-set level even Rogers decried in July as “unrealistic and ill-conceived.”

None of the dozen annual spending laws can be enacted until Republican and Democratic leaders settle on how much to provide for the federal government’s annual operating expenses.

“We’ve got the right people in place,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior GOP appropriator. “They have a lot of respect on both sides of the aisle. If we just gave them a number, people would be pretty amazed at how well this would work.”

Instead, Rogers and Mikulski are at the helm for the first government shutdown in 17 years, even after they reached general agreement in September on a stopgap funding bill that neither had wanted. They took to their chambers a fiscal 2014 continuing resolution that reflected the sequester’s bite on federal spending after spending months pushing for an end to the budget cuts.

Still, this measure would have kept the federal government running until later in the year, and before the trigger of automatic, across-the-board cuts that will come in January without new legislation to replace the sequester.

Since becoming chairman in 2011, Rogers has followed orders to find the specific budgets cuts needed to reduce the federal government’s annual operating expenses from $1.09 trillion in fiscal 2010 to $1.043 trillion in fiscal 2012. He carried that out, joking that his situation was akin to someone who had hoped to be captain of a boat and found himself in the engine room, fixing pipes.

Rogers has spent more than a quarter-century working on agency budgets as an appropriator. He has been publicly calling for an end to the sequester through a broader budget deal for months.

“We have not seen that yet,” Rogers said at a June hearing, when Democrats pressed him about the sequester’s effect on federal programs. “So the chair joins you in your frustrations, except that I would guess that it’s multiplied many times on my part.”

Rogers went even further the next month, when House GOP leaders abruptly pulled his committee’s Transportation-HUD bill from the floor. In that measure, appropriators had to deliver detailed information on what many Republicans said would likely become a bargaining chip for later talks on a larger budget deal.

The Transportation-HUD measure was the first — and, it turned out, only — of the domestic spending bills to reach the floor. But House Republican leaders, conceding that not even their own members were willing to vote for the austere bill, pulled it from the floor. Rogers said this proved that the House wasn’t willing to live within the rules it set in the 2011 budget law.

Since the government shutdown began Oct. 1, Republicans have had another chance to use the appropriations process, as they advanced a strategy of introducing narrowly targeted spending bills aimed at opening particular programs such as the national parks.

Mikulski has answered back with a plea for the appropriations work her panel and its subcommittees have completed with backing from Democrats and Republicans.

“I so appreciate the cooperation that we’ve received from the other side of the aisle in our committee,” Mikulski said. She noted there have been disputes on “funding levels and even matters of policy, but I had an open amendment process. Everybody had their say. Everybody had their day. We moved the bills forward. That’s called regular order. That’s called democracy.”

Rogers even had four fiscal 2014 spending bills in his pocket that had passed the House on a bipartisan basis.

But as Republican leaders advanced their targeted bills into the political storm last week, they did not turn to finished spending measures. Instead, the House appropriators decided to steer clear of the controversies over new funding levels and carved out pieces of the continuing resolution to bring those to the floor.