Appropriations process mired in same troubles as previous years

Senate rules allowing lengthy debates and myriad amendments may bog down the process.

Most years, the appropriations process would be in dire trouble by now.

Congress would be way behind in the drive to enact the annual spending bills by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. And conservatives would be grumbling that appropriators were rigging the system to spend more money. But not this year. The House was on track to pass all of its appropriations bills before the July 4 recess, and the Senate also began to get down to business last week. So far, the process has been relatively civil and orderly, and the bills have adhered to GOP-imposed spending limits.

Nobody has spiked the coffee. Instead, much credit goes to the new Appropriations Committee chairmen, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who are determined to avoid the usual train wreck that results in an 11th-hour omnibus spending package bulging with costly riders. "We have a commitment not to have an omnibus," Lewis told National Journal recently.

Unfortunately for the two chairmen and other Republicans intent on showing that Congress can get its budget work done efficiently, plenty of pitfalls still lie ahead. Many of the same old problems -- plus some new complications -- are looming.

For starters, although Senate floor action on appropriations began in earnest last week, the bills are bound to eventually pile up there because of the chamber's rules allowing lengthy debates and myriad amendments. And the Senate's always-crowded calendar could come unglued in the event of a Supreme Court nomination -- or if Republican leaders resort to the "nuclear option" to expedite consideration of any judicial nominee.

Long-standing differences in spending priorities between the conservative House and the more moderate Senate also threaten to derail the appropriations bills. This year, some Republicans are more intent than ever to demonstrate their fiscal conservatism, but achieving that goal will mean cutting popular government programs. Congress is working under a tight fiscal 2006 budget resolution that, heeding calls from President Bush, requires cutting appropriations outside of defense and homeland security by about 1 percent, a reduction not seen since the Reagan administration.

Reorganizations undertaken by the House and Senate Appropriations committees further complicate things. Both committees used to have 13 subcommittees; each had a jurisdiction that generally matched its counterpart in the other chamber. Now the House has 10 Appropriations subcommittees that wrote 11 spending bills, while the Senate has 12 subcommittees that are writing 12 bills. These differences make conference committee negotiations a nightmare.

Realistically, rolling unfinished appropriations bills into an omnibus package to ease their passage at the session's end may be inevitable, particularly given the differing jurisdictions of the subcommittees. "I think there's likelihood [of an omnibus] simply because of the logistics," conceded a Senate Republican leadership aide, who added that the Senate is concentrating first on passing spending bills that will easily match up along jurisdictional lines with the House versions.

In fact, omnibus spending bills have become the norm rather than the exception. During the past 20 years, Congress has had to bundle appropriations bills in 11 of them, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Dark clouds may be approaching, but some Republicans are praising the job that their new Appropriations chairmen have done so far, especially in the House, where appropriators are far ahead of where they have been in past years.

By July 1, Republicans most likely will have shepherded all 11 of their spending bills through the House. According to the House Appropriations Committee, the last time the chamber completed its appropriations work by the end of June was in 1988, when Democrats held the majority and Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., was the chairman. In 1994, when current ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., was the chairman, the House completed 12 of the 13 bills by the end of June; since then, the House has passed a low of zero bills by that date (in 1997) and a high of nine bills (in 2000).

House conservatives, who played a role in selecting the new Appropriations chairman and wanted assurances that he'd toe the conservative line, say that Lewis is responsible for the smooth sailing. "I think there's a commitment to fiscal discipline that I've not seen since I've been here," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, a conservative group that says it has more than 100 members.

Lewis said he has sought to change the perception of the Appropriations Committee as insular and unresponsive to other members. "I personally have spent a lot of time talking to various groups," he said. For now, Lewis seems content that he has met his goal of passing all of his spending bills by the July 4 recess. "Initially, everybody said, 'It can't be done,' " he said.

During the House's appropriations debates, Democrats offered amendments to reset the spending priorities and funnel more funds to domestic programs. But the chamber's strict rules and party discipline -- combined with the tight budget cap -- made it difficult for House Democrats to make much headway. "We're not going to make any significant changes in the bill, given what the budget has done to us," Obey conceded during recent debate on the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies appropriations bill.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Cochran and Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., are intent on passing their 12 spending bills under the "regular order." "With new chairmen both in the Senate and the House, we have a real opportunity to greatly improve the appropriations process," Frist told CongressDaily recently.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va, shares those goals. "I hope the committee will approve 12 individual, fiscally responsible appropriations bills this year, and that we will press the leadership to find the floor time to send the president all of the bills," Byrd said in a statement when the committee began marking up its first measure last month.

"These omnibus bills are like an albatross, hung on the neck of the Congress," Byrd added. "While an omnibus bill may be an efficient means of moving appropriations bills through the Congress at the end of a session, there is nothing in our Constitution that says that the appropriations process has to be efficient."

Nevertheless, Byrd and other Senate Democrats are grumbling about the Republican-crafted budget -- and they have much more parliamentary flexibility to gum up the works than their House Democratic counterparts. Byrd told the committee that the budget "is a blueprint for shortchanging America's future." He added: "In many respects, from educating our children, to providing medical care to our veterans, to securing our homeland, inadequate funding is the glaring theme."

A senior Senate Democratic aide said that Democratic senators can be expected to try to reshuffle spending priorities during floor debate. "I would expect major issues to appear on the bills," the aide said, noting that as the year progresses and other legislative outlets to address pet causes diminish, "senators' dreams turn to appropriations bills." The aide, a longtime veteran of budget battles, warned, "Notwithstanding that there is one party controlling both houses and the White House, it's going to be difficult" to complete the appropriations process on schedule, as the Republicans would like.

As appropriations work continues, the new subcommittee jurisdictions can make it challenging to discern differences in the two chambers' approaches. For instance, the Senate Appropriations Committee gave its Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee about $49 billion to work with, while the House Appropriations Committee gave its Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Subcommittee $57.5 billion. (In the Senate, the State Department falls under the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee.)

Still, the differences and possible clashes are there: The Senate would give the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration $315 million, while the House wants to spend about $228 million. On Amtrak, the House voted to restore money that GOP leaders had proposed cutting -- avoiding a possible conflict with Senate Democrats and Republicans. But by providing $626 million more than Republican leaders wanted, the House sets up a possible fight with the administration, which wants to slash funding.

Even as Republican appropriators and leaders push ahead with the spending bills, an unexpected crisis can stop them in their tracks. One big problem already has come up: The Veterans Affairs Department reported recently that its health care system will fall $1 billion short this year.

While the VA can make up the difference this year, the shortfall leaves the department underfunded in fiscal 2006. "This Congress will tolerate no diminution of services or reduced quality of care for our nation's veterans in this time of war," Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Appropriations Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, said in a statement last week. "If we need more money, we'll find it." But fulfilling that promise is complicated by the fact that the House already has passed Walsh's bill for fiscal 2006 and that Congress will have to find the money from other programs.

Given the past history and the looming new complications, it seems likely that the Senate will bog down on the spending bills, that the two chambers will battle over a myriad of issues, and that Congress this fall ultimately will have to pass several stopgap continuing resolutions and then a large omnibus bill to keep the government operating. By then, nobody will care that the House passed its appropriations bills by July 4. Having lived through years of late nights and endless meetings, James Dyer, the former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, said of the appropriations process: "It's not a sprint -- it's a marathon."

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