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Once the Deciders on Spending, Appropriators Now Follow the Leaders

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Mikulski is leading the Senate Appropriations panel through the first government shutdown in 17 years.

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.

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