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Trillion-Dollar Spending Bill Exemplifies Dysfunctional Congress

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Trillion-Dollar Spending Bill Exemplifies Dysfunctional Congress

March 22, 2018

Congress has passed a 2,232-page appropriations bill that spends $1.3 trillion.

And not a single lawmaker has read it.

Nor does the Congressional staff– who typically summarize the endless statutory legalese for their bosses – have a strong grasp of how this $1.3 trillion is being spent, and how the unrelated appropriations riders will operate.

The omnibus bill was unveiled the evening of March 21, with the House passing the bill on March 22, and the Senate aiming for passage the day after that, in order to beat the March 23 deadline for funding the government. If lawmakers had missed the deadline and failed to pass a continuing resolution, part of the government would have closed for the third time this year.

The appropriations system is broken. One of Congress’ most basic, constitutional duties is to pass the annual appropriations bills in a timely fashion, with lawmakers fully understanding the content of these bills.

Specifically, Congress is required to pass 12 appropriations bills each year before the October 1 fiscal new year. In reality, this has happened only twice since 1985. The other 31 years saw an average of just one annual appropriations bill enacted on time. And between 2009 and 2015, not a single appropriations bill was completed before October 1.

The main problem is the Congressional schedule. The budget resolution typically sets broad spending levels in April. Then, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees must write and approve 12 complicated spending bills. Next, a true open amendment process often requires a full week to process each individual bill on the House and Senate floor, before forming 12 conference committees to negotiate the differences, and then sending 12 conference reports back to the House and Senate for final passage.

Instead, Congress typically merges all 12 appropriations bills into one mammoth “omnibus bill” and, in 2018, will have waited to enact it until the fiscal year is nearly half over. In the meantime, federal agencies have been running on continuing resolutions that fund programs at last year’s levels, with the occasional partial government shutdown in between.

Completing this all by October 1 would leave Congress with little time to do much else. Legislation affecting taxes, entitlements, immigration, foreign policy, and most program authorizations, as well as executive and judicial nominations, would be squeezed out. Even cancelling most Congressional recesses – which would take away time to meet with constituents back home – would not solve this problem.

A straightforward solution would include the following provisions:

First, move the start of the fiscal year from October 1 to January 1, to give lawmakers an additional three months to finish the spending bills.

Second, consolidate from 12 to 6 appropriations bills, and switch to biennial appropriations in which 3 bills are enacted each year. This more accurately matches Congress’ timetable.

Third, more strictly enforce rules against appropriations riders, perhaps by requiring a stronger supermajority to include them.

Fourth, in the event that any appropriations bills still miss their deadline, have spending continue automatically at the prior year’s level until the bills can be enacted. No more government shutdowns.

And finally, allow any lawmaker to raise a super-majority point of order against the passage of any bill whose legislative text has not been publicly available for 72 hours.

While this is a longstanding bipartisan problem, it is one that House Republicans had pledged to end shortly before winning the majority in 2010. Their promises: :

  • “We will ‘read the bill’ and require legislation be publicly available at least 3 days before voting on it.”
  • “We will advance legislative issues one at a time and end the practice of massive bills that address unrelated issues.”

Yet little has changed. The omnibus bill, with countless unrelated riders attached, has not been publicly available for three days.

This breakdown of the appropriations process requires a comprehensive overhaul. To that end, Congress recently created a bipartisan, bicameral, budget reform “Super-Committee.” While skepticism and even chuckles are warranted at the creation of another Super-Committee, at least Congress is acknowledging the collapse of the budget process.

If Congress insists on spending trillions of our hard-earned tax dollars, then at least they should do so competently and with a basic understanding of its own legislation. Until then, Congress will continue to earn its abysmal 15 percent approval rating.

Brian Riedl is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @Brian_Riedl.

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