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Restoring regular order in congressional appropriations

Peter C. Hanson

Executive Summary

The annual appropriations process is in a state of collapse. A primary symptom is the decline of “regular order,” the budget procedure for debating and passing individual appropriations bills in each chamber. Today this procedure has been replaced by the passage of huge “omnibus” packages at the end of the session, with little scrutiny and opportunity for amendment.

While both chambers have some responsibility for the breakdown in this key part of federal budgeting, the Senate’s rules and procedures shoulder most of the blame.

It’s time to restore regular order. To do this the Senate would need to take several important steps, including:

  • Reform the filibuster rule by allowing a simple majority of Senators to end debate on all matters related to appropriations bills.
  • Utilize concurrent consideration of appropriations bills. This would allow the Senate to move on appropriations bills without waiting for the House to finish action and would permit greater time for Senate scrutiny.
  • Restore limited earmarking. Despite the arguments for eliminating earmarking, doing so has had the unintended effect of making it harder to pass appropriations. A limited restoration of earmarks could help achieve agreement yet maintain a curb on wasteful spending.
  • Reduce transparency. While open government is broadly supported, for many lawmakers the intense scrutiny of their votes makes them reticent to vote for any compromise. Members might be more inclined to cast tough votes on appropriations if only final tallies, not individual votes, were reported.

Introduction

The annual appropriations process is in a state of collapse, and it is time to take some serious steps to restore it to health. For the last year, I have been working with the National Budgeting Roundtable, a group of budget analysts and political scientists seeking ways to improve federal budgeting. My focus has been on possible improvements to the annual appropriations process based upon research I conducted for my book Too Weak to Govern: Majority Party Power and Appropriations in the U.S. Senate (Cambridge 2014).

A primary symptom of the collapse of appropriations is the decline of what is known as “regular order.” Regular order is a time-tested system in which a dozen or so (the exact number has varied) appropriations bills are debated and adopted on an individual basis by the House and Senate. It is advantageous because it breaks the budget into bite-sized pieces and facilitates oversight.

Today, a depressingly familiar pattern has replaced regular order. Most appropriations bills pass the House of Representatives only to die in the Senate. In response, lawmakers bundle appropriations bills together into massive “omnibus” packages near the end of a session. These packages may be thousands of pages long, include over a trillion dollars in spending, and are adopted with little debate or scrutiny. In fact, limiting scrutiny is the goal. Leaders count on end-of-session pressures and the fear of a government shutdown to allow adoption of the package with minimal debate. In their view, it’s the only way to push a budget through the gridlocked Senate floor.

The pattern is clear: both chambers have a hand in the   creation of omnibus legislation, but the Senate is disproportionately responsible for the breakdown in appropriations. The cost of its failure is high. Omnibus legislating prevents rank-and-file members from exercising genuine oversight over the budget. Unwise spending and policies are more likely to go uncontested. Funding is likely to be provided after the beginning of the fiscal year, forcing agencies to rely on temporary continuing resolutions that create waste and inefficiency. And, disruptive government shutdowns are larger and more likely.

It is time to restore regular order in appropriations. My research shows the following:

  • Senators prefer regular order, but turn to omnibus packages because the Senate’s individualistic rules permit appropriations bills to be delayed or used to force votes on politically painful amendments.
  • Lowering the threshold for cloture on appropriations bills to a simple majority would let the majority party better manage debate on the Senate floor to keep the trains running smoothly.
  • Other reforms, such as easing transparency requirements and restoring earmarking, might also ease the path through Congress for these critical bills.

This paper, which summarizes a lengthier paper presented to the Roundtable (Hanson 2015b), explains the research behind these findings and makes the case for reform.

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