Analysis: Challenge for dysfunctional Congress to get budget process back on orderly track

WASHINGTON – In President Ronald Reagan’s final State of the Union address, he slammed Congress for sending him a 14-pound, 1,053-page single spending bill. He warned lawmakers not to try his patience by doing it again.

“And if you do, I will not sign it,” Reagan said.

Guess what? It worked.

In 1988, Congress passed 13 separate spending bills by the rarely met Oct. 1 deadline.

Twenty-six years later, an even larger bill of the type Reagan decried was seen as a triumph as it sped through Congress last week.

That’s evidence of just how badly the annual appropriations process — the little-watched but extremely important means by which Congress sets the government’s annual spending priorities — has gone off the rails.

The omnibus bill — really 12 bills wrapped into one — was “rushed to passage without amendment or meaningful review,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “The American people have no real ability to know what’s in it or hold us, their elected representatives, accountable.”

The question now is whether today’s bitterly divided, dysfunctional Congress can rise to the occasion, as did the Congress that Reagan chastened.

It’s hardly a sure thing.

Last week’s 1,582-page bill was negotiated in the back rooms of the Capitol by only a few. It was presented to the House and Senate as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Less than a decade ago, all 12 bills came to the full House and Senate for debate and amendments, and were then hashed out in conference committees before being signed by President George W. Bush.

But last year the bills became entangled in a broader fight over spending. Not a single appropriations bill passed the Senate before the omnibus measure.

Republicans filibustered the only plan that Democrats tried to bring up, because it contained spending levels well above the cuts imposed by the 2011 budget deal.

The House was trapped by the opposite problem: spending levels that were too low for most domestic programs to win support from Democrats. There, the appropriations process collapsed after just four bills were passed.

That fulfilled predictions by the House Appropriations Committee chairman, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., that the GOP’s tea party-backed budget had set up appropriators for failure.

It wasn’t until a 16-day partial government shutdown and a crisis over a potential default on government obligations that House GOP leaders sued for peace.

The result was a December budget agreement that, 2 1/2 months into the fiscal year, awarded the appropriators enough money to negotiate the bipartisan bill that Congress sent President Barack Obama on Thursday.

Still, it was better than the previous year. Budgets for the Pentagon and a handful of other agencies were agreed upon almost halfway into the fiscal year and most other agencies kept at 2012 levels, only to be slammed by across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

Looking ahead, Rogers and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, promise a return to the practice in which appropriators are handed a pot of money to divide among the 12 bills.

The lawmakers spend May, June and July voting bills out of committee and then debating, amending and passing them on the House and Senate floors.

“There is hope for a more regular process next year,” Rogers said last week. He cited the December budget deal that has given appropriators their “top line” for the 2015 round of bills. “We will redouble our efforts to get back to what we all want, regular order, next year.”

The nuts-and-bolts world of the appropriators attracts relatively little attention from the mainstream media, but their actions have a real impact on people in ways they probably don’t notice.

It was an appropriation “rider” by then-Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that banned smoking on airplanes.

Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., who died last fall, used his clout over the Pentagon’s budget to create a registry for bone marrow donors to make it easier for people with lymphoma and leukemia to get life-saving transplants.

It was debate in the Senate Appropriations Committee five years ago that spelled the end of Obama’s promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison where suspected terrorists are held.

Drone aircraft got their start from a 1990s-era earmark that the Pentagon didn’t want.

The once all-powerful House and Senate Appropriations Committees, stripped by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, of their ability to lace the 12 spending bills with billions of dollars for home-state pet projects known as earmarks, have seen their lustre fade.

Boehner long has viewed the clubby world of the appropriators with disdain.

One of his first moves when taking over as speaker three years ago was to banish the committee from its ornate office, steps from the floor and with a balcony overlooking the Capitol’s West Front that was a favourite spot for Thursday afternoon happy hours, to inferior digs on the third floor. He sided with tea party forces to shortchange the committee this spring.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has a long history on the Appropriations Committee but also has dissed it in recent years, denying it the floor time needed to complete its bills.

Former Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, handled the slights with stoicism. But his death last year put the more aggressive Mikulski in charge of a committee whose previous leaders have included powerhouses such as Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

The appropriators’ status has diminished in recent years, and Mikulski took over after two more senior members surprisingly passed on the job.

Look for her to build on the momentum and try to restore the influence of a group of lawmakers once known as the Capitol’s Cardinals.


EDITOR’S NOTE — Andrew Taylor has reported on Congress since 1990.

An AP News Analysis