In an opinion piece written for Politico, senior budget writer Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill asks whether the budget process works any more.
As Congress refocuses its attention on the looming fiscal battles, with both sides steeling for a fight over the debt limit and a potential government shutdown, a development with greater implications for our nation’s future is unfolding with far less notice. The appropriations process — that hallmark of Congress’s constitutional authority and wellspring of our power to conduct oversight and set national priorities — is on life support and in danger of total collapse.
With just four legislative days left before the end of the fiscal year, not one of the 12 funding bills required to keep the government open has been enacted into law. House Republicans have struggled to pass even a continuing resolution to keep the government running for a few weeks while appeasing their red-meat conservatives.
This is hardly the first time Congress has failed to conclude its annual budget process in a timely and orderly fashion, but this year’s implosion offers the most vivid example yet of the reason behind the process’s demise: the surrender of Congress’s constitutional power of the purse to the politics of a polarized, hyperpartisan House.
Historically, the Appropriations Committee has displayed restrained partisanship as Congress’s instrument for holding the executive, of whatever party, accountable. To the extent that the process is overcome by the partisan or ideological conflicts of the moment, it loses credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness.
While partisanship has been trickling into the appropriations process for years, the dam was burst by this year’s House budget resolution, which locked into place sequestration — the drastic, indiscriminate cuts that were triggered by Congress’s failure to act on the real drivers of the deficit, tax expenditures and entitlement spending. The budget then doubled down on sequestration by setting allocations for most domestic bills even lower in order to restore funds for defense and security. This left Republican appropriators with a number of bills they could neither defend nor pass.
The impact was on full display the week Congress left for its August recess when two major appropriations bills imploded. The Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill was pulled from the House floor when Republican leaders realized that many of their own members, as well as most Democrats, would very likely vote against its drastic cuts, while the Interior and Environment bill was suspended indefinitely amid a contentious and protracted committee markup.
Even Homeland Security, traditionally the low-hanging fruit of the appropriations process, has become a victim of the political crossfire. The 27 hours it took to pass my first bill as subcommittee chairman in 2007 — thanks to desultory amendments and procedural obstruction by rank-and-file Republicans, with their leaders standing idly by — gave a foretaste of what was to come. For the past two years, I and successive Homeland Security subcommittee chairmen have consciously striven to maintain a cooperative process and have brought bipartisan bills to the floor. In both instances, however, the work of months was blown up by incendiary amendments on immigration that spelled the end of bipartisan support. This year, Republican leaders tried to dissuade the main perpetrator, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), from offering his poison-pill amendment targeting so-called dreamers for deportation. But when he persisted, all but six Republicans voted for it — a striking sign of what the Republican Party has become, and of the near-total defeat of appropriations bipartisanship by broader political forces.
While such episodes have corroded appropriations over time, this year’s budget crisis threatens a complete breakdown. By institutionalizing anti-tax ideology and an almost exclusive focus on domestic discretionary spending, the House Republican budget not only makes bipartisanship impossible; it also makes appropriations as we know it impossible.
Whatever expedients may be adopted to avoid shutdown or default, they will be a far cry from the carefully and cooperatively crafted appropriations bills of years past. I have had numerous conversations with appropriators of both parties who stand ready to be a part of the solution to these larger fiscal challenges — if their leaders will give them room to maneuver. But the solution cannot come from appropriators alone. It will require a comprehensive budget agreement along the lines of the 1990 and 1993 measures that eventually produced four years of budget surpluses. Sequestration would then be lifted, with revenues and all categories of spending on the table.
Such an agreement would not just solve our nation’s fiscal challenges and help restore Americans’ faith in their government — it would also salvage the process by which Congress exercises its constitutional power of the purse, holds the executive branch accountable and oversees the investment of taxpayer dollars.