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Regular Order and the Spending Bills

Posted on April 19, 2016
By Peter Larson/Medill News Service - Detail from http://www.flickr.com/photos/medilldc/5431598714/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20628066

By Peter Larson/Medill News Service - Detail from http://www.flickr.com/photos/medilldc/5431598714/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20628066



(This originally appeared in The Hill)

Alexander Hamilton, newly a star on Broadway, didn’t care much for specific spending requests from Congress. He urged the House and the Senate to send him a general authorization to spend money as he saw fit.

That was one of the principal disagreements that separated Hamilton from Thomas Jefferson, who believed that Congress should lead when it came to the appropriations process.

The congressional spending process started in earnest in the days following the Civil War. It was in 1865 that the Appropriations Committee split off from the Ways and Means Committee to form a new standing panel dedicated to overseeing how the people’s money was being spent. Over the years, congressional spending has waxed and waned. During wartime and during the Great Depression, it rapidly increased, budget consequences be damned. During peace and prosperity, like the Roaring ’20s, surpluses magically appeared.

We are in an age of budget ambiguity. We aren’t at total war, but neither are we at total peace. The economy is limping along, and policymakers are not at all certain if it is going to start catching fire or slip back into recession.

The Appropriations Committee has steadily lost power and influence — through no fault of its able and professional members. As a share of the total budget, discretionary spending is declining rapidly. The nondefense portion of non-entitlement spending is now only 17 percent of the total budget. And because earmarks are no longer politically correct in the Republican-led Congress, the ability of the Appropriations Committee to deliver goodies to colleagues and their constituents has largely disappeared. Hamilton, a proponent of centralized executive branch power, would be very pleased.

It is in this context that the congressional spending committees will commence their work over the long, hot summer. Efforts to pass another budget proved futile as members of the House Freedom Caucus decided they didn’t want to ratify the last plan, put forward by former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). No matter — the budget law has not yet expired, and the Appropriations Committee can get to work without worrying about the pesky Budget Committee.

The dirty little secret is that most appropriators have very little regard for the Budget Committee in the first place, and it has been quite obvious that the whole process is overdue for a complete overhaul.

It has been 42 years since the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 was signed into law by Watergate-weakened Richard Nixon. The clunky process, which requires that the House and Senate pass a budget by April 15 (so much for that deadline) but doesn’t require a presidential signature, means that usually Congress goes through a wasteful summer of legislating on spending bills that have no chance of getting signed into law.

What usually happens is a high-stakes game of chicken, with the end result being a huge omnibus bill, negotiated by a few leadership aides and representatives from the White House, in a small room, with the threat of a government shutdown looming over the country.

It’s a hell of a bad way to legislate. Members are disenfranchised, there is no transparency, and the American people lose confidence in the entire process.

This year, Republicans have a chance to pass all 12 spending bills and restore regular order to a process that desperately needs it, thanks to Boehner’s much-maligned budget compromise.

Restoring regular order to the spending process will show that the Republican-led Congress can do the work of the people and watch the train wreck that will convulse Cleveland at the same time. If Republicans do it right, they will be able methodically promote their own spending priorities, keep the Democrats on the defensive and hopefully get their work done without the threat of a government shutdown.

Let’s hope they do it right.