Appropriations Season Is Off to a Bumpy Start

Posted June 19, 2009 at 6:15pm

Two down. Ten to go.

Democrats this week will try to resuscitate their plans to pass the 12 annual appropriations bills in a timely and orderly fashion.

But lawmakers and staff caution that this week’s House debate over the $42 billion Homeland Security spending bill could set the tone for the remainder of appropriations season, which got off to a difficult start last week.

It will also show whether Republicans’ decision to tie up the floor Thursday in a procedural protest yielded tangible results or did nothing more than “stir the pot,— as Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, put it last week.

One thing Democrats and Republicans agree on is that the full House’s first foray into appropriations was nothing short of a fiasco.

Final passage of the $64 billion Commerce, Justice and Science fiscal 2010 spending bill — originally slated for a day of floor time — came only after three days of debate, two trips to the Rules Committee, and 52 roll call votes forced by angry Republicans, a one-day record.

“It was a sorry use of the time of this institution,— Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House and its longest-serving Member, said on the floor Friday. Members of both parties continued to snipe over the matter on Friday, but then proceeded to pass the $3.7 billion legislative branch funding bill without Thursday’s theatrics.

Democrats have set the lofty goal of completing the 12 spending bills before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, hoping to avoid the omnibus spending measures and continuing resolutions that have dogged appropriators in recent years.

But facing the crush of a tight legislative schedule and a full agenda, top Democrats last week raised the specter of an omnibus unless the parties can cooperate in moving the bills.

Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) warned an omnibus measure was inevitable without constraints on amendments. “Sooner or later we have to try and recognize that there are only so many hours in the week,— he told the House Rules Committee.

As a result, Democrats required all amendments for the C-J-S bill to be preprinted in the Congressional Record — a tactic that falls short of the open process usually assigned to spending bills in the House, but one that keeps the chamber on track to meet Obey’s goal of moving all of the spending bills through the House before the August recess.

It’s a maneuver that Republicans occasionally employed when they were in the majority, but one the GOP now fears will become standard practice.

Members of both parties in recent years have criticized preprinting requirements, which Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the Rules panel, noted last week when he inserted into the record a report written by minority Democrats in the 108th Congress complaining about the practice.

However, Democrats charged the more than 100 Republican amendments submitted for the C-J-S bill amounted to a “filibuster by amendment,— and Obey quickly pulled the bill from the floor Tuesday night and went back to the Rules Committee. The new rule made 33 amendments in order, including nine Democratic amendments, of the 127 that were originally slated for consideration.

Republicans said that Obey over-reacted in pulling the bill, and insisted that GOP lawmakers were merely preserving their ability to offer amendments.

“I personally felt if we had not closed down the rule, if we had gone forward with all the amendments initially, the vast percentage would have fallen away,— said Lewis in an interview Thursday night after the marathon vote session. “Members would have thought at least they had a voice in the process and we’d have finished our work last night.—

Lewis said he expects similar limits on amendments when the House takes up the Homeland Security spending bill. “It would be a shame to have us do that because we’ll end up spending hours and hours of the public’s time,— he said.

Obey said he did not fault Republicans for opposing amendment limits, but called it necessary to meet the demands of the calendar. “We’ve got an obligation to get our work done,— he said.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who spent more than 20 years on the Democratic staff of the House Appropriations Committee, said limits on amendments are justified by the unusual amount of appropriations activity this Congress — that included passage of the $780 billion economic stimulus bill and the $106 billion war supplemental.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see the normal process abridged,— he said. “[But] I don’t think the minority lost very much— by the Democratic rules, which he termed “not draconian in any sense.—

But Lewis, who said he had been optimistic about efforts to get the appropriations process back on track, called “this close-down of the amendment process— disconcerting. “That would suggest we may be moving in the direction of stumbling over the same kinds of things we have in the past,— he said.

The appropriations process also faces challenges in the Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week said he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were negotiating a consent agreement to bring the Homeland Security bill to the floor before the July Fourth recess.

Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who also wants to finish the spending bills before Oct. 1, last week said amendments will be handled through regular order, but declined to comment on what constitutes a reasonable number.

“It’s not for me to decide whether something’s excessive. I just hope that those who are providing the amendments are sincere about it, is all,— he said.