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Away from the Cliff, Negotiations over Spending Continue

When lawmakers and the press are focused on a shiny object like the fiscal cliff, you can guarantee a handful of lawmakers will be quietly at work on a monster piece of legislation.  President Obama’s reelection did nothing to change that.

Politico reports that House and Senate appropriations committees are in the process of writing an omnibus spending bill for the coming year for items including the Pentagon’s budget, agriculture, transportation, housing, justice and science.  This legislation could also serve as a vehicle for Sandy-related disaster spending, which would effectively allow appropriators to breach the $1.047 trillion budget caps.

The committees have set a goal of having the legislative text done soon after Congress returns from Thanksgiving on November 27.  With discussions of the fiscal cliff taking center stage, we haven’t heard too much about the appropriations process, but not because it is insignificant.  Lawmakers have before them no small task as they grapple with the question of where to make cuts:

“Indeed, if the fiscal cliff debt talks end up requiring more cuts from discretionary spending, an updated omnibus would be a far better vehicle for implementing new savings than the six-month stopgap bill that is keeping the government funded.”

Spending is at the heart of the problem our country faces with regard to the fiscal cliff; it is the main culprit for our fiscal problems.  A number of lawmakers, including House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY), Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), have expressed the importance of being prepared and “to be in a position where if they give [them] time on the floor, [they] are ready to go,” as Rep. Simpson put it.

Well, being ready to go is all fine and good, but what matters more is how lawmakers are spending taxpayer money.  By waiting until the lame-duck session and attempting to pass an omnibus spending bill at the last moment, lawmakers in Congress have already made a blunder.  Heritage’s Patrick Louis Knudsen lays out the implications of a failure to complete spending bills in a “deliberate, orderly process”:

“An orderly approach would have two key benefits: (1) It would begin to restore some command of congressional budgeting, which has suffered from the past several years of dysfunction, and (2) it would improve the chances of holding spending down.”

An example of this “dysfunction” is that the Senate is budgeting by the terms of the August 2011 debt deal, known as the Budget Control Act (BCA).  The BCA capped “discretionary” spending at $1.047 trillion — a whopping $19 billion higher than the $1.028 trillion figure established in the House-passed budget resolution.  The messy consequence is that the House and Senate have “different subtotals divided among the dozen discretionary spending bills.”

Knudsen explains that the two chambers could fix this lack of harmony by passing budget resolutions by the “regular order,” which means they should “pass each of their 12 respective appropriations bills individually, they should reach stand-alone, bicameral agreements (conference reports) on each, and they should pass each final agreement separately and in time for them to be enacted by the start of the fiscal year on October 1.”

That didn’t happen, despite the fact that it was “entirely within [Congress’s] reach.”  Moreover, while entitlement spending is most at fault for our increasing publicly held debt, appropriations for discretionary spending exacerbate the problem.

When it all comes down to it, Congress just needs to do its job, and part of that is passing a budget and corresponding appropriations measures in regular order — something that hasn’t been done since 1995.  Is that too much to ask?

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