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‘Regular Order’ Still Not Out of the Woods

Current appropriations process is still a far cry from before the late 2000s

Sens. Richard C. Shelby, left, and Patrick J. Leahy ride the Senate subway in 2011. Shelby, now the Senate Appropriations chairman, has touted the return to regular order in this year’s appropriations process. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Richard C. Shelby, left, and Patrick J. Leahy ride the Senate subway in 2011. Shelby, now the Senate Appropriations chairman, has touted the return to regular order in this year’s appropriations process. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS | Senate leaders have spent the past few months crowing about the return to “regular order” on appropriations, justifiably in many respects. They’ve passed nine spending bills, the first time that’s happened since 2009, and a first before September since 1999. And Congress sent three spending bills to the president’s desk before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, which hasn’t happened in 10 years.

But by several metrics, the Senate hasn’t matched the fuller appropriations debate in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” that existed prior to the late 2000s. Senators have spent roughly 16 days this year debating their appropriations bills on the floor; the average was nearly 28 days from fiscal 1986 through 2006. The Senate has considered 165 amendments to fiscal 2019 spending bills, compared with 269 per year during the fiscal 1986-2006 period.

That’s partly because lawmakers are packaging bills to save time and maximize votes, as opposed to the traditional, individual bill vision of regular order. The five days in August spent debating an $857 billion measure covering the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Education and Labor generated 95 pages in the Congressional Record. That’s including time carved out to discuss the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and other interludes such as tributes to the late Aretha Franklin.

The last time the chamber debated the Pentagon appropriations bill — which makes up roughly half of all discretionary spending and about 15 percent of the total federal budget — was in 2009 and filled 107 pages in the Congressional Record. Two years earlier — the last time the Labor-HHS-Education bill reached the floor — debate on that measure stretched over 134 pages.

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Former Senate Appropriations staffer Charlie Houy, a 30-year panel veteran, said that in today’s environment those two bills wouldn’t have passed individually. “Are we back to regular order? Not in the classic sense, but given today’s dynamics, the Senate is pretty darn close,” said Houy, who was the panel’s top Democratic aide before retiring in 2013.

In fact “classic” regular order may have been a fleeting moment in the long arc of Senate history. Houy recalled that in the ’80s and ’90s, the Senate would often pass appropriations bills within a day, even minutes. If that happened today, Twitter and cable news would boil over about “transparency.”

Houy and Bruce Evans, a 22-year Appropriations aide who was GOP staff director until this spring, were hopeful for a sustained return of regular order given Senate leaders’ recent successes.

But they weren’t sure this year would be anything more than a temporary blip in the process’ secular decline, driven by factors such as: the banishment of home-state “earmarks,” formerly the glue to stitch together bipartisan majorities; never-ending political campaigns and fundraising drives; a widening red-blue divide that has collapsed the deal-making center; and the 24-hour news cycle and hyperactive social media atmosphere.

“It’s like a legislative dopamine hit for some senators and the staff who try to dream up the most tweetable amendments,” said Evans, who left the Hill in June. “The ease with which those votes can be made awkward is so simple … you just blast it out there. And I think it’s made everyone a little more reticent” to debate spending bills.

It’s not hard to see that reticence re-emerging next year as the presidential campaign heats up, with multiple Senate Democrats potentially mounting a bid for the Oval Office.

The rise of controversial policy riders that amount to legislating on appropriations, which is supposedly against the rules, is another problem. Evans, who used to manage the annual Interior Department spending bill, said that when that measure is negotiated now “there could be a hundred open items … and two of them might be money-related.”

Complicating matters further, the latest two-year budget deal raising spending caps expires next year. Thus discretionary spending caps for fiscal 2020 would be slashed by 10 percent, or $126 billion, from levels currently being negotiated without another agreement.

Haggling over spending levels since “sequestration” was triggered in 2013 has been a big part of why appropriations bills haven’t moved across the Senate floor in recent years, with the process getting pushed to the end of the cycle until a two-year truce is reached.

But the intervening years have also been difficult because they were even-numbered. Which makes 2018 an outlier and gives appropriations veterans some hope.

“It could be a sign that things are changing,” Houy said. But he acknowledges that “it’s pretty hard to predict whether the Senate has turned a corner. … I don’t think the Appropriations Committee is out of the woods.”

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