The second of four parts
When Sen. David Perdue took to the chamber floor early last month, it wasn’t to talk about the Affordable Care Act overhaul being hashed out, or nascent efforts to reform the tax code, or any other legislative priority of congressional Republicans and President Trump.
Instead, the freshman Georgia senator noted with alarm that just 50 legislative days remained before the end of the fiscal year, when government funding would run out and Congress would face another shutdown crisis. Perdue wasn’t just highlighting the specific failures so far this year, but lawmakers’ years-long breakdown in handling their annual fiscal duties. The former CEO, in just his third year in the Senate, spent 14 minutes chastising the legislative branch for its consistent inability to carry out even the most basic acts of governance.
“The problem is that we have a system that is absolutely, totally broken,” Perdue said. “It’s a fraud that’s being perpetrated on the American people.”
In the month since he sounded that alarm, little has changed. Neither chamber has passed a budget, considered any appropriations bills or laid out a strategy for addressing the impending debt-ceiling deadline. Many lawmakers and aides believe Congress is headed toward familiar territory: a fall showdown over spending and the debt, a short-term patch to avoid falling off a cliff, and little consideration for the long-term problems at hand.
Congress’ brinksmanship has led to government shutdowns in the 1990s and 2013, and narrowly avoided shutdowns other years; the U.S. credit rating was downgraded in 2011 over debt ceiling uncertainty. Lawmakers often rely on stopgap measures passed at the last minute to prevent shutdowns, and fund the full government – more than $1 trillion – in a single bill. They annually consider only one-third of federal spending, with two-thirds running on autopilot for programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, or paying interest on the federal debt.
Although balancing the books hasn’t been a top priority for Democrats, even Republicans who consider it to be fiscal gospel acknowledge that it can’t be done through the annual appropriations process. (RealClearPolitics will more deeply explore the mandatory side of federal spending in future parts of this series.)
Both parties have struggled to pass budgets in recent years, and have been forced to negotiate bipartisan, two-year agreements to boost spending, thus avoiding massive across-the-board cuts that both parties oppose but are mandated by law. All 12 appropriations measures have passed on time (by Oct. 1) just four times since 1974 – and more than a dozen times, no appropriations measure became law on time. The Senate hasn’t passed one by the deadline since 2011.
“It’s broken. It is terribly broken, and for 43 years people have not done anything about it,” Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said angrily in an interview last month.
So why, exactly, has Congress not fixed a broken process that routinely leads to fiscal brinksmanship, uncertainty and undesirable outcomes?
The answer, according to interviews with more than two dozen lawmakers, aides and outside budget experts, is a complex web of competing interests, extreme partisanship, misplaced motivations and the power of the status quo. The potential fixes differ, from minor patches to fix specific problems and new punishments for failure to a complete overhaul of the committee structure in Congress and the shape of the federal budget itself. Others think lawmakers simply need a change in behavior and approach.
Put more simply: Few people in Washington would disagree that the process has almost completely broken down. But disagreement reigns as to why, and how, Congress can fix it.
To some, including Perdue, Rounds and many other lawmakers in both parties, the process is squarely to blame. Early in his second term as president, Richard Nixon refused to spend billions of dollars that Congress had appropriated, a decision called impoundment, creating a potential constitutional crisis. Lawmakers responded by negotiating and passing a new budget law, which Nixon signed on July 12, 1974 -- 43 years ago this week and just a month before he resigned.
The new law was an effort to re-establish Congress’ authority in federal spending. It created budget committees in each chamber and laid out a new process for funding the government: The president submits a budget by the first Monday in February; the budget committees respond with hearings and analysis, then lay out their own fiscal roadmap by April 15. The next months are spent on subcommittee and committee drafts and rewrites – called mark-ups -- of 12 appropriations measures, followed by consideration and votes in the House and Senate, then conference committees ironing out of differences, and all bills signed by the president by September 30.
"Until you bring it all on budget -- all the mandatory, everything together -- we’re going to continue to be in this sort of merry-go-round that just never takes you any place.”
Suffice it to say the process has rarely worked that way. Presidents routinely miss their budget deadline, as does Congress. Recently, fiscal years have ended with passage of continuing resolutions, which keep funding going at current levels. Lawmakers and agency officials despise CRs, which remove flexibility and future planning by locking in spending. But they are often necessary to avoid even more disastrous shutdowns, and to give lawmakers an extended deadline to negotiate a bipartisan solution for next year's funding, which take the form of omnibuses, an amalgamation of the 12 spending measures passed in a single trillion-dollar law.
The solutions presented range from miniscule to grand. For example, many lawmakers propose cutting off their own pay if budgets aren’t completed – but detractors point out that doing so favors independently wealthy lawmakers vs. those who rely on their salaries. Some support limiting amendments to spending measures to ease their passage on the floor, or dealing with those amendments only in committee.
Others, like Perdue, have suggested overhauling the process. Perdue last year outlined a plan that would entirely restructure congressional committees to eliminate coordination problems between budget panels, authorizing committees and appropriators; it would also force the budget to be signed into law and place all mandatory spending, including Medicare and Social Security, under the purview of the annual appropriations process.
Even just the shift in the committee structure would constitute a seismic change in congressional business, and is unlikely to gain much traction. “To do it means it changes peoples’ careers,” said Sen. Bob Corker, a vocal critic of the budget process and supporter of reforms.
Trouble also lies in Perdue’s proposal to loop Medicare and Social Security into the appropriations process – there is simply little likelihood of those programs, long considered the third-rail of politics, being shifted to require approval annually.
“Until you bring it all on budget -- all the mandatory, everything together -- we’re going to continue to be in this sort of merry-go-round that just never takes you any place,” Corker said.
Mike Enzi, the current Senate Budget Committee chairman, held a series of hearings last year aimed at outlining budget process reforms. The ultimate proposal was less drastic than Perdue’s: It would shift to a two-year appropriations process; mandate specific floor time for appropriations measures; and automatically continue funding at current levels if appropriations aren’t enacted, thus eliminating the possibility of government shutdowns.
Enzi’s committee hoped to enact reforms before last year’s election, when neither party knew who would control government and benefit from running the process. But the series of hearings came at the height of the presidential primary last spring and received scant attention – only a handful of senators on the committee, including Enzi, Perdue and Corker, and Democrats Sheldon Whitehouse and Tim Kaine, routinely questioned the witnesses. Bernie Sanders, the ranking member on the committee, missed the majority of the hearings as he crisscrossed the country in the Democratic primary.
Enzi still holds out hope that some of his reforms can take shape, and is looking for vehicles to push his priorities this year – even attaching them to efforts to raise the debt ceiling this fall.
“I want to get some budget reform through any way I can,” Enzi said.
Whitehouse, who led Democrats’ efforts in those committee hearings in Sanders’ absence, said there remains “considerable interest” from the panel to enact process reforms. But he conceded that it would be a tough road outside the budget committee. Appropriators would likely balk at many changes – including a two-year process – that would diminish their power. And Whitehouse said any reforms would have to also consider the tax code, which could run afoul of the Finance Committee – and of Republicans plans to enact a major tax overhaul this year.
“We’re suffering through because of that political naiveté of the Founding Fathers. It’s one of the few things they got wrong.”
“The little Budget Committee has a perilous Scylla-and-Charybdis to get through,” Whitehouse said. “But I think it’s worth the effort.”
For proponents of budget reforms, however, part of the problem is that even those who share their frustration don’t necessarily buy their analysis that reforms would help. To top appropriators, and to many lawmakers and experts on the budget process, a change in approach and attention from lawmakers, rather than structural reforms, is the only way to reverse the trend of an increasingly dysfunctional budget process.
Stan Collender, a former Democratic staffer for both the House and Senate budget committees, is considered one of the foremost experts in the field – his twitter handle is @TheBudgetGuy. In May of last year, he testified at a House hearing on how lawmakers could re-establish congressional authority through the power of the purse. Collender didn’t mince words.
“Saying that Congress has abrogated its power-of-the-purse duties gives it way too much credit,” Collender told the committee. “In reality, the House and Senate have been running away almost at full speed from their legally required budget responsibilities, and they have been doing it with impunity.”
In an interview with RCP, Collender said flatly that there is no structural change that would prevent Congress from lurching crisis to crisis. He said the Founding Fathers put nothing in the Constitution about the budget process because they thought it would be a noncontroversial exercise.
“They just assumed it wasn’t going to be a political fight, so there was no mechanism in there to force action,” he said. “We’re suffering through because of that political naiveté of the Founding Fathers. It’s one of the few things they got wrong.”
Few lawmakers would likely echo Collender in that specific criticism. But there are many elected officials in both parties who say that lawmakers themselves are to blame for the annual budget mess.
“There’s no budget process that can overcome deep political and policy differences,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a member of the budget and appropriations committees, and a former top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “The idea that you can just create a better mousetrap and all of the sudden there’s better harmony breaking out is not plausible.”
In part, there’s no agreement because both parties question the budgeting motivations of their opponents. Republicans routinely criticize Democrats for failing to balance their budgets – a consistent attack line against President Obama during his time in office. Democrats, meanwhile, mostly dismiss Republican efforts to balance their budgets over a 10-year span and using gimmicks that aren’t practical solutions. Indeed, the president’s budget this year balanced in 10 years, but the significant cuts and rosy assumptions of economic growth used to achieve that goal were questioned and criticized by lawmakers in both parties.
Still, because budgets are non-binding and highly partisan exercises, there is little fallout from failure. But in the appropriations process, the breakdown has real consequences. Annual appropriations bills are in many ways the height of congressional oversight, and not enacting them forces either continuing resolutions, which make it difficult for agencies to plan for the long term, or omnibus spending measures, which are apt to miss policy preferences of individual lawmakers.
Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican member of the Appropriations Committee, said he has routinely been frustrated when details he has helped write into appropriations measures are left out of omnibus bills, often without his consultation or even a heads-up. He struggles to defend those decisions to constituents or people he’s worked with in agencies.
“Nobody even called and said, ‘Guess what, there’s somebody in the Senate who hates your provision on whatever.’ It just gets wiped.”
“It’s all gone, and you’re going, ‘Why?’” Amodei said. “Nobody even called and said, ‘Guess what, there’s somebody in the Senate who hates your provision on whatever.’ It just gets wiped.”
Rep. Chris Stewart, another Republican member of appropriations, said he voted against the omnibus measure that passed Congress in May, more than half a year after the fiscal year began, because his frustration about lack of input from appropriators had finally boiled over.
“So many things important to my district or my state in Utah were taken out without any expectation or any heads-up,” Stewart said. “We feel like we’re completely excluded from the process. So I feel like anything that isn’t what we’ve been doing for the last X number of years is better.”
Many House Republicans – including both Stewart and Amodei – blame their Senate colleagues, regardless of party. Rep. Hal Rogers, who chaired the Appropriations Committee from 2011 through last year, identifies the culprit as the 60-vote threshold in the Senate.
Under his leadership last year, the committee passed all 12 appropriations bills, and the full House passed six of them. But the Senate only passed three before the process stalled after Democrats filibustered the defense bill (the Senate committee had passed all 12 measures). “Our guys said why are we beating our brains out on these bills that go nowhere in the Senate, so the process just froze up,” Rogers said.
The process has also frozen up because of unrelated issues. In 2015, Republicans took over the Senate majority and increased their House majority to the GOP’s largest margin since before Franklin Roosevelt was president. But two summers ago, after Democrats successfully passed an amendment banning the Confederate flag on federal grounds, House Republicans pulled a spending bill from the floor and halted the process after only passing six of the bills. In the Senate, Democrats, newly relegated to the minority, filibustered the defense spending bill three times, stating concern that Republicans would boost military spending and not domestic spending. The upper chamber didn’t pass a single bill.
In certain ways, however, lawmakers’ approach and the process are intimately tied together. Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a veteran of Capitol Hill, said the 1974 law creating the budget committees and establishing a road map for the process was a mistake. Lawmakers don’t hesitate to support unspecific cuts in non-binding budget proposals, Lilly argued in an interview, but they often chafe at specific ones in appropriations measures.
What Congress was left with, he said, is a process that takes up a huge amount of time and gives members a chance to posture politically “without really doing anything real.” It could work, Lilly argues, only if lawmakers act “in good faith” in their budgets.
This year, in particular, the “regular order” that lawmakers pine for has been thrown for a loop. Republicans passed an incomplete form of last year’s budget in January so they could pass their health care legislation via reconciliation; they are now nearly three months behind on passing this year’s budget. Republicans are planning to use the reconciliation process on two separate budgets to pass almost their entire major policy agenda. (Reconciliation allows legislation to pass by a simple majority in the Senate, sidestepping the filibuster, but the legislation must have a direct impact on federal spending or revenue.)
They also completed last year’s appropriations process in May of this year, consolidating this year by several months; in the process, appropriations bills have taken a backseat. It’s unclear how many will get consideration in either chamber in the seven legislative weeks before October.
So Republicans find themselves looking for work-arounds. Rep. Tom Graves proposed passing all 12 spending bills in the House based on a Republican vision for spending, and the appropriations committee is working at a furious pace to approve those bills to make that possible in this month (though they are still acting without a budget agreement on top-line spending levels). Those bills would likely get no Democratic support and would be dead on arrival in the Senate.
Graves and others who back the plan – including the majority of the Republican Study Committee, the largest group of House conservatives – argue it has two benefits: It would allow them to campaign on conservative spending bills, and it might improve their negotiating position when Congress faces deadlines in the fall.
Graves said that lawmakers have been “trapped by tradition and custom” on spending bills, and it is time to “revisit” their approach, even if it is just a subtle change. Others support the idea, eager for even a minor shift in the appropriations process.
“To me this is not way out-of-the-box. It’s slightly out-of-the-box because it’s a solution that should be considered,” Rep. Bill Flores said. “Might be the new normal because the normal we have today sucks.”
Tomorrow: The GOP’s dilemma
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of appropriations bills passed by the Senate last year. Three were approved, not zero.