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The way Congress spends taxpayer money is broken. Here’s how to fix it

Lawmakers must choose between status quo or a new path forward

Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As a lifelong conservative, I have always been wary of change except when necessary to preserve what we value. Congress has reached that critical juncture in how we allocate taxpayer dollars. Our failure to demonstrate responsible spending has eroded trust with the American people, and we’ve betrayed the confidence of our colleagues by sometimes expecting them to vote without full transparency. We must rebuild trust in the process and in one another. 

This can only be achieved by reforming the appropriations process itself. 

The election of a House Appropriations Committee chair is an opportunity to take stock of how it’s working, and how it isn’t. While I thank Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Vice Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., for their leadership in helping us navigate these challenging times, ultimately, we are at a decision point. We need to start our fiscal year 2025 work now, but to do so without changes almost guarantees a December lame-duck session driven by Democrat spending decisions.

Let’s establish a few facts. The national debt has grown to $34 trillion. To simply service this debt, the government will now spend more on interest than the entire defense budget. With the exception of four years, Congress has run a deficit every year since 1970. According to the Congressional Budget Office, our current trajectory will see the deficit increase to 6.1 percent of the gross domestic product in 2034 — the kinds of deficits we endured through World War II. 

I was appointed to the House Appropriations Committee in 1997 and have since witnessed the decline of Congress’ budgeting process. The most glaring example is the use of continuing resolutions as a crutch to complete the budget cycle after the annual deadline. If you have wondered why a government shutdown always seems right around the corner, that’s because it is. In recent years, Congress has used around five CRs to provide funding for an average of almost five months (137 days) — and this average is growing. In other words, Congress is consistently five months late in doing its job, constantly dangling over the cliff’s edge of a shutdown.

Here are some practical changes I propose the House adopt immediately to begin the reform process:

  • Freeze spending on unauthorized programs until the relevant authorizing committee passes updated authorizing language, performed on a “zero-based” budgeting process. Today, budget increases are on autopilot. Current practice by the Office of Management and Budget and the Appropriations Committee takes last year’s budget, then adds consumer price index to adjust for inflation and the planned employee step-raises for what is called “level funding.” This drives government bloat. I propose that a requirement to reauthorize programs includes restating or updating its purpose and asking each agency to justify a spend-plan associated with accomplishing its mandated goals.
  • Empower authorizers. Today Congress passes fewer bills than ever before – limiting the ability of members on authorizing committees to contribute and see their priorities enacted. I propose partnering authorizers with appropriators to reach consensus on effective reauthorization. Members not on the Appropriations Committee should not have to question their role in Congress or how their committee assignments contribute to what happens on the House floor. Each member should have a voice, a clear role, and be empowered to represent their constituents well – as was intended by the Founding Fathers. Legislation must not be based solely on priorities of a select few members, including appropriators.
  • Funding bill riders. A challenge for appropriations bills is not only the dollar amounts, but the policy riders that either are included or excluded. The practice of “authorizing on appropriations bills” diminishes the demand for authorizing committees to take up these issues. I propose that three of the four chairmen and ranking members of each subcommittee must agree to a rider for it to be elevated to the next level of leadership, otherwise the status quo of legacy and other riders prevails. There is an old saying, “the bill can only carry what it can carry.” Appropriations bills cannot carry everything everyone wants. This process will help ensure more controversial issues are handled in the authorizing committee of jurisdiction and not bumped up to leadership.
  • Earmarks. In this last appropriations package, our flawed process led to the inclusion of controversial Senate earmarks the House did not support. We cannot allow this to happen again. I propose that for an earmark to be enacted, all four corners of the respective subcommittee must sign off. Unanimity or bust. Currently, the House has their earmarks, and the Senate has theirs — neither side questions the other.  There are plenty of noncontroversial needs in communities that can be addressed without repeating this year’s mistakes.  

As we now operate with one of the smallest majorities in history, without comprehensive reform as I’ve begun to outline, the appropriations process will continue to fail. It seems everyone is staring at the iceberg but unwilling to change course. This is not news to anyone, yet some of my colleagues seem willing to stick with and build upon the status quo. 

In my years of service on the committee, I never once voted against my own bill while Republicans held the majority — until this year. This may seem trivial to some, but here’s why it should matter to everyone: If the leader of one of the largest subcommittees in Congress cannot recognize the bill he is voting on from the one his subcommittee approved, what hope is there for his colleagues, let alone the American public?

I ask this question in earnest, because members of Congress deserve a better and more transparent appropriations process. And, more importantly, the American people deserve a Congress that works better on their behalf.  

It’s time to choose — status quo or a new path forward. The stakes are too high to fail.

Rep. Robert Aderholt is a Republican representing Alabama’s 4th District, a seat he has held since 1997. He is a member of the Appropriations Committee and also chairman of its Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee.

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