Why Process Matters in Congressional Appropriations

 Image credit: Congressional Institute, http://conginst.org/
Image credit: Congressional Institute, http://conginst.org/

By C. Jarrett Dieterle

As past legislative sessions have come to a close amid threats of a government shutdown, we’re forced to wonder: what has gone so terribly wrong in the appropriations process? Professor Peter Hanson explores this question in his recent white paper for the Brookings Institution, “Restoring regular order in congressional appropriations.” In it, he investigates the extinction of the “regular order” method of appropriations and calls for the restoration of this time-honored process. 

For much of Congress’s history, discretionary spending was set by regular order, in which appropriations bills were debated and passed individually. This allowed the budget to be broken down into bite-sized pieces, encouraging legislators to exercise greater control over spending. Today, by contrast, Congress has taken to bundling appropriations bills into thousand-page omnibus packages that are rammed through at the end of legislative sessions—often in the face of a looming government shutdown. Lawmakers hardly have time to read these voluminous bills, let alone exercise oversight.

Unsurprisingly, an inferior process leads to inferior results. As Hanson and political scientists like Matthew Green and Daniel Burns have argued, regular order helps encourage debate among legislators and reduces the risk of “substandard legislation” being stuck into appropriations bills. Furthermore, as Yuval Levin has noted, breaking up the budget plays better to the innate strengths of Congress in that it allows individual lawmakers to exercise greater influence over discrete funding choices.

Hanson pins most of the blame for the collapse of regular order on the Senate, since its rules allow senators to engage in disruptive tactics like filibustering or attaching controversial amendments to bills to score political points. This leads Senate leadership to stifle debate by pushing “must-pass” omnibus bills under tight deadlines at the end of legislative sessions.

How can this breakdown in the process be rectified? Hanson proposes four fixes for the appropriations process: reforming the filibuster to allow a simple majority vote to end debate on spending bills; allowing bills to be considered concurrently by the House and Senate; restoring earmarks on a limited basis to help grease the skids for passing legislation; and shifting toward non-public deal-making to shield individual lawmakers from negative publicity.

While there’s room to debate the efficacy of these different proposals—such as whether restoring earmarks would really help pass more legislation—Hanson’s plea to restore congressional authority over the federal budget is timely. Given the well-documented diminution in power Congress has experienced vis-à-vis the Executive Branch in recent years, it’s time for our First Branch of government to reassert its leadership role.

Congress’s power of the purse is a good place to start—James Madison himself described it as “the most complete and effectual weapon” to be wielded by the people’s representatives. Yet even the most effectual weapon is useless when wielded incorrectly. Until Congress recognizes why process matters when it comes to appropriations, it will have trouble restoring its control over our government’s spending.