Shelby Expected to Assume Appropriations Panel at Prime Time

Budget deal in place as veteran lawmaker expected to slot into big roles

Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby is likely slotting into the Appropriations chairmanship at a good time, with budget figures already agreed upon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby is likely slotting into the Appropriations chairmanship at a good time, with budget figures already agreed upon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 7, 2018 at 5:05am

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the expected next chairman of the Appropriations Committee, will slide into the role with much of the grunt work already done.

With a slimmed-down legislative agenda, no major policy initiatives on the horizon and spending levels for fiscal 2019 already agreed to, the timing is good to focus on the elusive goal of clearing the 12 yearly appropriations bills.

The Alabama Republican is also expected to take control of the subcommittee that oversees funding for the Pentagon, a coveted spot that has a heightened profile given the substantial increase in military funding available over the next two years.

In most ways, it’s a win-win for the 83-year-old senator. But despite the smooth landing, the pressure on Shelby will be immediate.

From the get-go

The Appropriations panel will have just six months to wrap up work on the spending measures before the start of fiscal 2019. The same problems that have in particular stymied floor consideration on appropriations in the past remain. And while current Chairman Thad Cochran’s exit next month could spur fresh motivation for a return to the regular process, a full-throated endorsement from leadership will still be necessary.

Watch: A Look Back at Sen. Thad Cochran’s Congressional Career

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“It’s not just who’s the chairman or the ranking [member] of the Appropriations Committee, it’s the leadership,” Shelby said. “If we [want to] get bills on the floor earlier, we’re going to have to have the leadership, both sides, move in a bipartisan way.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, when asked by email whether floor time would be given to spending bills this year, said “the leader would very much like a regular appropriations process.”

Members of the Appropriations panel, such as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, believe the shake-up at the top will be a “breath of fresh air.”

“We’re all working on our bills right now, so there is going to be a certain amount of freshness in turning the page,” said the West Virginia Republican, who chairs the panel’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee. “We’re planning on starting quick.”

Other senators were less optimistic that a new chairman would have any effect on the appropriations process.

“It’ll never happen. It doesn’t have anything to do with our chairman,” Georgia Republican David Perdue said of passing the 12 spending measures under so-called regular order, or the rules and customs that allow for an orderly and deliberative policymaking process. “We pass the bills in committee pretty regularly. It’s getting them to the floor. So that doesn’t have anything to do with the chairman.”

Perdue is among the 16 members of a new committee tasked with streamlining the budget process. That panel is expected to start meeting this week, with instructions to recommend fixes by Nov. 30. 

Window of opportunity?

The last time Congress passed each individual appropriations bill before the fiscal year’s end was 1994. And 2005 was the last time Congress passed each individual bill, albeit not in time for the start of the fiscal year.

Appropriations measures are often overshadowed by other legislative initiatives. Last year, the GOP attempts to overhaul the health insurance system and the federal tax code crowded out the Republican-controlled Congress when it came to advancing appropriations bills. 

To his credit, Cochran — who announced Monday he would retire after work was done on the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill — was successful in both 2015 and 2016 in getting most of the spending measures through the Appropriations panel. But various obstacles prevented many from either reaching the floor or passing.

Whether this year is any different remains to be seen, but the environment may be ideal.

This year’s legislative landscape appears barren, and expectations are low that the chamber will accomplish much in the run-up to the midterm elections. The appropriations bills offer an alternative for leadership to fill floor time with something other than nominations.

Take 2016, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who, among other things, was loath to give President Barack Obama any additional victories in the last year of his term — announced that the chamber would attempt to move all 12 of the individual spending bills. That effort ultimately failed, but it ate up floor time in a year without many other legislative initiatives, and allowed Republicans to tout the return to regular order under a GOP-controlled Congress.

But that might be easier said than done. 

“I wish a new chairman would change that dynamic. I think it’s learned bad behavior and it’s not the chairman’s behavior; it’s people who try to prevent us from taking individual appropriations bills across the floor,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said. “We need to do better, but it’s going to take some self-restraint on the part of members.”

Still, the opportunity is there for the chamber to at the very least clear a few of the less controversial measures. And the desire is there, at least among some, to take on the challenge of passing all 12 spending bills.

“We’re turning a page here, let’s try to move in that direction,” Capito said.