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Appropriations Bills Face New Twists and Old Realities

This year’s appropriations process resembles our new approach to Russia: a “reset— button has been pushed, no one knows exactly where it will take us, but everyone hopes for the best.

[IMGCAP(1)]Clearly, Congress needed to make some changes in its spending habits given the failures of recent years. Keep in mind that the last time Congress enacted all its regular appropriations bills separately and on time was in 1994 under first-year House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and his longtime Senate counterpart, Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). What allowed the fiscal clocks to run on time was unified party control of Congress and the presidency, with both branches in sync on national spending priorities (if not on health care reform).

The stars seem to be similarly aligned this year after no separate bills were enacted last year (on-time or otherwise); and only one bill (Defense) was separately enacted in 2007 (more than a month late). In both instances, the remaining measures were bundled into those clumsy, omnibus medicine balls that remind everyone just how fiscally out of shape our body politic is (“Oomph!—).

This year’s relatively easy adoption of the Congressional budget resolution, with most of the president’s priorities intact, together with last week’s final approval of the war supplemental and semi-smooth launch of the fiscal 2010 appropriations process in the House, auger well for the new round of spending bills.

For the first time in my memory, House appropriators published a tentative timetable for consideration of all 12 bills on their Web site. This is something that was held close in the past because it is always subject to the vicissitudes of House floor activity. But it is a commendable bow to greater transparency and predictability.

The House Appropriations Committee is still observing the House rule requiring earmarks to be listed in bill reports by project, amount and name of the requesting Member. Senators, on the other hand, have only had to file financial disclosure letters for each bill, certifying that neither they nor their families personally benefit from any earmarks.

However, this year, for the first time, Members of both bodies must publish their earmark requests on their office Web sites. Since House Members’ requests only appear there, finding some is a little like an Easter egg hunt. Senate requests are easier to find since they are linked from the Appropriations Committee’s Web site under “Congressionally Directed Spending Requests.— Both chambers should move immediately to directly posting these requests on the Appropriations committees’ Web sites using easy-to-file electronic forms.

Two other laudable changes pushed by the president and Congress are that earmarks benefiting for-profit entities be advertised for competitive bids and that the total cost of earmarks be reduced as a percent of total discretionary spending. Whereas last year (fiscal 2009) they amounted to roughly 1.3 percent of spending, this year they will be capped at 1 percent of the total.

As Roll Call recently reported, Obey is catching flak for outlawing “monuments to me— earmarks. These are Members’ district-directed spending for organizations or structures named after the Member. As Roll Call has documented, self-naming projects are nothing new (Guess what the state Byrd of West Virginia is?). In the olden days, you had to be dead before anything could be named after you. More recently, federally funded buildings, bridges, highways and institutes have been named after still-living former Members.

Now, it seems, you haven’t earned your spurs as a sitting Member until you can channel taxpayer dollars into a self-reflecting pool memorializing your unfinished legacy. Republicans deserve credit for highlighting this disturbing trend and prompting Obey’s edict. This is a shameful, self-serving practice both politically and personally. It should be stopped in its tracks (Obey Obey Now!).

Another new development not sitting well with minority Republicans in the House is the requirement that amendments to appropriations bills be published in the Congressional Record prior to consideration of each bill. In the past, straight open amendment rules have been the practice (except on legislative branch spending bills).

I have no problem with the new guidelines so long as second-degree amendments are still allowed and this is not used as a foot in the door for jamming a more restrictive amendment process after looking over the field of published amendments. But the restrictive jamming process is exactly what happened last week on the first appropriations bill out of the box (Commerce-Justice-science).

The bill was returned to the Rules Committee after only two amendments had been offered from the floor. A second rule was reported at 2:50 a.m. Wednesday allowing only 33 additional amendments to be offered (out of 127 filed). Of the 24 Republican amendments permitted, 10 had to be selected from a list of 21 amendments that had been blessed by the majority. In the past, winnowing down amendments was usually done by unanimous consent. The GOP minority reacted to the majority’s power play Thursday by demanding a record-shattering 53 recorded floor votes — chilling legislative activity to a glacial pace.

In recent years, the first appropriations bill out of the chute is usually a target for all manner of minority party amendments, aimed mainly at cutting earmarks. Thereafter, things tend to settle down. The real problems emerge down the road in House-Senate conference committees with those pesky extraneous provisions inserted by appropriators that have nothing to do with spending levels. If both chambers did a better job of enforcing their rules against including legislative provisions in spending bills, they’d save themselves a lot of time and trouble. They might even earn a gold star for matching that last on-time finish in 1994.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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