For Spending Bills, It’s About Time

Posted October 4, 2013 at 3:13pm

A single date tucked into a continuing resolution aimed at ending the government shutdown may well determine whether Congress passes any more fiscal 2014 spending bills.

Senate Democrats, led by Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, have pushed for a CR that would provide short-term spending for about five more weeks, through Nov. 15. That funding deadline would put pressure on lawmakers to move some spending bills quickly and give them time to deal with another round of automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, set to hit in January.

“The Nov. 15 date keeps the pressure on to get the deal needed to cancel sequester so Congress gets to work and enacts fiscally responsible appropriations bills that invest in Americans today and in America’s future,” Mikulski said.

House Republicans have argued for a Dec. 15 deadline, saying it’s a more realistic target for assembling a broad fiscal 2014 spending package. They also warn it may be hard to meet the Nov. 15 goal of finishing a full-year spending plan — if they do not, Congress may have to clear a second CR.

Backers of the Nov. 15 date say they hope to restore some order to the appropriations process that in recent years has seen few individual spending bills pass. Instead, Congress has opted for long-term CRs or catch-all omnibus packages that provided new dollars for some agencies and maintained current spending levels for others.

If Congress goes that route again this year and the sequester remains in place, it may not be until at least the start of the 114th session of Congress, in early 2015, that lawmakers write fresh spending bills

Veteran Democratic House appropriator David E. Price of North Carolina has said Congress may be in the “twilight” of an appropriations process that for decades has allowed rank-and-file members to directly shape the budgets of agencies.

“I worry about that,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican appropriator from Oklahoma. “That’s why we need to get this re-established as quickly as possible, and next year, people can see how this works.”

Congress last cleared a dozen annual spending bills as standalone measures in 2005. That means that about half of the current members of the House and two-thirds of sitting senators have never seen a full set of spending bills signed into law. The House this year has passed only four of the dozen fiscal 2014 bills, while the Senate has not passed a regular appropriations bill in two years.