WASHINGTON — Things are about to get fun for congressional budget writers like Minnesota’s lone appropriator, Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum.
After the U.S. House and Senate agreed to a two-year budget blueprint in December, lawmakers of all stripes say they’re ready to get back to the fabled “regular order” of budgeting, which means giving control of the process back to about 80 Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committees, including McCollum.
That group holds the purse strings, making it a posh post when Congress is operating as it should. But modern political intransigence has left appropriators out in the cold and has all but ended the regular process of writing a year-long budget, debating it in committee and on the floor, and coming to a deal with the opposition. Short-term “stop-gap” budget extensions now reign, and the battles over them breed threats of (and, this fall, actualized) government shutdowns.
But December’s budget deal is supposed to change all that: lawmakers, from House leadership on down, endorsed a plan to get appropriators back to the table and craft budgets the old-fashioned way, a more drama-free approach, they hope, than the one that let a quixotic GOP offensive against Obamacare funding shut down the government last fall.
At least McCollum and her colleagues hope.
“It has a very different feel to it this year because appropriators are talking to each other, really trying to make it work,” she said.
Appropriations process on its head
The textbook budget-writing process is relatively straightforward, but when gridlock prevents congressional deal-making it all falls apart. Normally, House and Senate appropriators get a budget outline from their respective budget committees. Then they fill in 12 separate government agency spending bills that add up to the numbers in the outline. Differences are worked out in joint House-Senate conference committees, the compromises are passed by both chambers and the president signs the bills into law.
That process has fallen apart over the last 20 or so years, and it’s gotten especially sour recently. House GOP budget plans have been completely incompatible with the Democrat-controlled Senate, which, before last spring, hadn’t even bothered passing a budget outline for four years. In 2013, the House took up just five of its appropriations bills; the Senate didn’t consider any of them. In their place, lawmakers have defaulted to passed short-term extensions, leaving the government and the public lurching from one potential government shutdown to another.
It all came to a head last fall: the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30 without any of the 12 budget bills in place, and the government shut down when conservatives chose to battle Obamacare funding rather than pass a short-term budget.
McCollum blamed the recent breakdown on a number of factors, from Republican leadership minimizing the Appropriations Committee’s power, to Congress’s inability to pass bills authorizing the programs appropriators are tasked with funding.
But Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota professor and Congress expert, said the problem isn’t a new one. Since the mid-1990s, the parties have moved so far apart politically that it’s damaged the work of even the traditionally bipartisan Appropriations Committee.
“Passing the appropriations bill before Oct. 1 each year is one of the most fundamental, critical duties of the Congress, and they know they’ve got to do this every year,” she said. “But for years now, we’ve had no bills, or late bills.”
Budget deal could change things
Theoretically, that all is supposed to change with the budget resolution passed in December. Lawmakers now have a budget target; appropriators are discussing how to structure the budget so as to hit that target; and after Congress passes a budget for the rest of this year, they’ll turn their focus to the 12 spending bills for 2015 with the goal of, for once, passing them all on time.
Because lawmakers have a Tuesday deadline to pass this year’s budget, they’re cobbling all the bills together and moving them that way (the tight deadline means a short-term budget might be needed to prevent a shutdown, but that’s not expected to be a problem). McCollum said committee leadership is calling on the rank-and-file to help fill in the details.
McCollum said she’s talked with negotiators — a group led by Republican Rep. Hal Rogers (Ky.) and Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.) — on topics like funding for Great Lakes programs (McCollum sits on the Interior subcommittee, which didn’t pass a budget bill last year) as they work toward finalizing the budget.
“Committee members like myself, we’re talking with our caucus leadership,” she said. “Appropriators are actually talking to each other.”
Pearson said she expects the budget deal to thaw budget negotiations a bit, even if there may be some flair-ups over certain budget areas.
“Overall levels have been established, party leadership is invested in this,” she said. “Although there will certainly be conflict over details, just having this framework in place … will help.”
Deal close on this year’s budget
The budget deal passed in December raised projected federal spending by $45 billion over caps set by sequestration. Half that goes back to Pentagon, and the rest is split up among domestic programs (there is a bit of a fight over that sequestration relief between different areas of the government).
A final deal is reportedly close, though negotiators are stuck hashing out the details for some programs. And, lest you think the deal defuses partisan fighting over the Affordable Care Act, spending on health care and Obamacare remains a sticking point, with conservatives still pushing cuts to the law.
Democrats, obviously, have said that’s off the table.
“The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land, millions of Americans have signed up for it, millions of Americans love it, we know it has problems, we know it has challenges, we know that there’s things to fix, room for improvement,” McCollum said. “There are some people who are so bent on repealing it that they figure that the only way they can have their voice heard, their way on it, is not to fund it.”
McCollum said negotiators are also fighting over so-called “policy riders,” or policy items tacked onto a budget bill with the goal of either attracting more support from members or becoming law alongside the budget.
Riders are a normal part of the process — one that everyone hopes will go much more smoothly the next time around.
“I’m looking forward to having regular order in the next year, and we’re all excited about it. We are ready to go. We know we’re going to have to make some tough choices,” McCollum said. The budget deal, she said, “changed the mood for the appropriators.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry