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Fiscal Irresponsibility

Time flies when all you do is fight. Here it is, five days before fiscal 2008 begins, and Congress has completed not a single one of the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the federal government for the next 12 months.

In 2006, when the Republican Congress failed to pass 10 of the 12 appropriations bills, Democrats properly chided the GOP for falling down on “the most basic job that Congress is expected to do.” Now, the Democrats have failed at it — utterly.

It’s worth noting that the last time Congress failed to send a single funding measure to the president on time was in 2002, also at a time when Democrats controlled the Senate.

The House, to its credit, processed all 12 bills before Congress took off for the August recess. It’s the Senate, once again, that has fallen down on its responsibility. It has passed just four spending measures. The House is derelict in not appointing conferees to get moving on final versions of those bills.

Senate Democrats complain that Republican “obstructionism” and President Bush’s veto threats against nine House-passed bills caused this year’s delay. But the arguments don’t hold water. Bills could have been brought to the Senate floor on a timely basis, forcing the hand of Republicans. And Bush’s veto threats have been on the table for months and — if Congress wanted to get the government funded in an orderly fashion — they should have speeded up the appropriations process, not slowed it down.

It’s true, not passing appropriations does not necessarily mean the government will shut down. Congress will shortly pass a continuing resolution to keep the wheels turning until mid-November, and then another one lasting into December. Then, or maybe in January, it will roll several measures into a series of “minibus” funding measures or one huge omnibus bill.

The problem with this procedure is that CRs cause chaos in executive departments, which can’t plan or let contracts in an efficient fashion. And omnibus bills usually get weighed down with pork-barrel spending and barely debated policy changes.

The last time Congress got the government fully funded on time was in 1994, in the second session of the 103rd Congress. So fiscal irresponsibility has become the rule for the legislative branch, not the exception. Why? As former Senate Republican budget expert Bill Hoagland put it last week, “appropriations are not sexy or vote-attention getters” and Senate Majority Leaders give floor time to measures that are. Hoagland’s former boss, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), gave it to flag-burning, medical malpractice reform and judicial nominations. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has kept the Senate busy fighting over the Iraq War and efforts to oust former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

We won’t try to argue that appropriations bills are sexy. Just that they are the guts of government — and that failure to attend to them is an abandonment of responsibility.

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