By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
When Congress passed the omnibus spending bill in March, it was the latest verse in a familiar and frustrating song for modern budgeting in Washington, D.C. Too much was spent, too little oversight was applied, and too few lawmakers participated in crafting the final proposal appropriating $1.3 trillion to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year.
At the same time, most lawmakers on both sides of the aisle got at least some of what they wanted: more spending on defense and border security for Republicans, more spending on healthcare and education for Democrats, more infrastructure spending for everybody. Yet Congress – and the country – didn’t get what was needed: an open, transparent process where the details of federal spending are thoroughly debated and voted on one-by-one.
Enter Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, whose ascent to the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee came in the wake of the omnibus. Instead of looking back and re-opening the omnibus, Shelby is looking ahead and attempting to fix the underlying problems that cause these last minute budget windfalls.
“I agree with President Trump that Congress needs to send him individual bills passed through regular order,” Shelby said in April after meeting with Appropriations Committee members to discuss a way forward.
“We agreed on an aggressive schedule and the importance of working in a bipartisan fashion. These members are eager to show that the appropriations process can work, and I’m confident that together we can have twelve regular appropriations bills available for floor consideration soon.”
What’s ‘Regular Order’?
Congress’ most fundamental responsibility under the Constitution is to allocate funding. Here’s how that process is supposed to work based on current law under what’s referred to in Washington as “Regular Order”:
First, the president submits a budget proposal for the entirety of the federal government. Then, taking or leaving ideas from the president’s proposal, the House and Senate pass a budget resolution that serves as a general framework for how federal dollars are to be spent. After that, members of the Appropriations Committees work to fill in that framework by crafting 12 different bills funding the various aspects of the government: defense, veterans affairs, agriculture, etc. The full House and Senate then debate, amend and vote on those bills to eventually send them to the President’s desk.
That’s not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Lately, in Washington’s zero-sum political environment, it has proven virtually impossible. Perhaps the biggest reason why is senators taking advantage of a rule that allows any member of the upper chamber to block a bill from coming up for a vote.
Don’t like how much health care is funded in the Labor/HHS/Education Appropriations bill? Objection. Didn’t get the rider prohibiting that thing you don’t like in the MilCon/VA appropriations bill? Objection. Want to turn a relatively obscure funding line item into a political firestorm? Objection. With each objection comes a threat to filibuster, and the Senate’s ability to debate and vote their way through individual appropriations measures dies a little more.
So even if the House of Representatives passes all 12 appropriations bills as it did last year, they wither on the vine in the Senate. Over the course of the year, the backlog builds and Congress ends up in the last-minute, crisis-driven position of passing 2,000-plus page spending bills that few lawmakers have read.
What’s Shelby’s plan?
Short of a vote to abandon the filibuster, the best way to reform the Appropriations process appears to be changing senators’ habits. If all senators in both parties agree to hold off on the objections and filibuster threats, appropriations bills can come to the floor for full debate.
It’s what Politico reported as the “hold hands and jump” approach.
“If we come out of the committee working in a bipartisan way, I’m hoping that that will help expedite the bills. That nobody would filibuster the bills, the motion to proceed,” Shelby told Washington reporters last week.
To enlist support, Shelby is talking to Republican and Democratic Senators on the Appropriations Committee, as well as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his vice chairman on the committee, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. He’s also taking advantage of growing frustration over the also-broken Senate confirmations process to get the body to address both problems.
This approach seems to be taking root. In a recent Senate Rules Committee meeting, McConnell and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois talked about getting back to “the Senate of old” by allowing votes on appropriations measures.
“I remember, Dick, you saying one time, ‘If you don’t want to vote, don’t come to the Senate,’” McConnell said. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with voting, and we will be going to these appropriations bills.”
The Senator from Illinois was intrigued.
“Think about it. Twelve appropriations bills coming to the floor subject to debate and amendments? It’ll be like the Senate of old,” Durbin said. “Let’s pick an appropriations bill, put some training wheels on it, and head it to the floor and see how this works.”
A Thankless Legacy?
When Shelby became Appropriations Chairman, most Alabamians who have anything to do with politics or government funding gleefully dreamed about all the federal dollars he would now be able to direct back home. It’s hard to blame anyone for thinking that, especially considering the billions Shelby has been responsible for even from beyond that lofty perch.
What if, though, Shelby’s leadership of the committee brings another legacy, one that’s a little different and would impact the entire nation: making the appropriations process work again?
For those who understand how broken the process is and how much that contributes to a growing national debt, the gratitude would be widespread and heartfelt. But, what about for everyday Alabamians who don’t follow the minutiae of the federal appropriations process? It’s their votes that have sent Shelby to the Senate all these years, but would the majority know about his role in such a fundamental shift in federal budgeting?
“Every American would benefit from Congress getting its act together on federal spending and moving the Appropriations process forward as it was intended,” Senator Shelby told Alabama Daily News. “Alabamians understand the value of a dollar and they don’t want to see their taxes go to waste. That’s important to me, and it’s important for the future of our country.”