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Republicans Battling Windmills Instead of Budgeting

The question that everyone should be asking is: Why is the House GOP only proposing a short-term continuing resolution?

This should be the moment when either individual appropriations or a full-year CR at the start of the year is not just easy to do but actually gets done.

The House, Senate and White House all agreed to the spending level for fiscal 2012 when the president signed the Budget Control Act on Aug. 2, almost two months before the fiscal year starts.

The fight to get there was so exceptionally hard-fought (to say the least) and the wounds from those battles are still so painful that only a handful of Members, and even less of the voting public, seem eager to do it all again anytime soon.

And polls taken since the BCA was signed definitively show that the high-stakes, hold-out-to-the-absolutely-last-minute politics of the debt ceiling fight were very damaging to those held responsible for it. Congressional Republicans so far seem to be the ones who have taken it on the political chin the most.

Under these circumstances, it’s logical to think that the preferred strategy for the House GOP would be a full-year CR rather than a short-term bill. Not only would that avoid another budget-related knock-down fight while the scars from the last one have not yet healed, but it also wouldn’t preclude any other spending decision from being made on the individual bills if and when they’re considered.

If the tried and true procedure is used, the CR will simply stop applying to the departments and agencies when the separate appropriation is signed. In appropriations-speak, those covered by the individual spending bill will “disengage” from the CR.

But logic doesn’t seem to be the motivator that it should be on the fiscal 2012 continuing resolution.

The House this week is supposed to consider a continuing resolution — presumably endorsed by the GOP leadership — that would keep the government funded until only Nov. 18.

This needs to be said as directly as possible: There is no practical reason for a seven-week continuing resolution in this situation. A short-term CR such as this one will force Congress and the White House to spend additional time debating and passing a second funding bill less than two months from now that is absolutely unnecessary.

This is the same Congress that frequently talks about a two-year budget because of complaints that the process already takes up way too much energy and political capital. Hearings have been held about having fewer steps in the budget process so that time can be devoted to increased oversight and other priorities that now get short shrift.

But given a real opportunity at the seemingly perfect time to expedite the budget process without losing control over anything that affects the government’s bottom line, the House GOP instead is proposing a short-term CR that will add rather than subtract steps. It will devote even more time to the budget when there’s ample evidence of extreme fiscal fatigue.

The commonly assumed but unstated reason for a short-term CR is that the House GOP wants to have increased political leverage on budget and other issues by being able to hold yet another potential government shutdown over the heads of Congressional Democrats and the White House. This time it supposedly will be policy riders — changes in authorizations — rather than spending levels that will be the biggest points of contention. Multiple CRs will mean frequent opportunities for House Republicans to impose their preferences on non-budget issues and using appropriations to do it.

This will sound quaint to some and unimaginable to others, but there was a time when doing what the GOP apparently is planning by authorizing on appropriations bills was considered by most Members of Congress to be as much a major legislative sin as usurping another committee’s jurisdiction.

Even though the Constitution doesn’t require authorizations, the overwhelmingly accepted practice over the years by both political parties has been not to include policy changes in appropriations bills and to work hard to prevent it from happening. In fact, authorizing in an appropriations bill has been considered so taboo on Capitol Hill that Republicans and Democrats on the authorization committee that would be affected by the proposal typically have worked together to prevent it from happening.

Although it certainly has happened before, the short-term CR means the traditional separation of authorizations and appropriations is about to be willfully abandoned with the full consent of the authorizing committees themselves.

The irony here is that a seven-week CR and the resulting multiple additional debates and votes on the other continuing resolutions that will be needed because of it will mean that Congress will have much less time to work on the authorization bills in which the policy changes should be considered.

It will also mean that the Appropriations committees, rather than the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction created by the Budget Control Act, will be the true super committees because no issue — spending–related or otherwise — will be beyond their reach.

It will also mean that the already much-maligned Congressional budget process will get sullied further as frequent and unnecessary debate after debate after debate occurs.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.”

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