For most of us, summer means beaches and pools, end-of-school parties and long days of sunshine.
For budget watchdogs like my team at Taxpayers for Common Sense, summer is when we monitor hearings every day, pore through tables of numbers, and compare bill drafts to markups to prior year bills. Here in Washington, it’s not just summer, it’s appropriations season.
Amid the showdown between former FBI-director James Comey and President Donald Trump, the Russia investigation and the efforts by the House and Senate to reform the health care system, it is easy to forget that Congress has routine business to take care of, namely passing all 12 spending bills through both chambers and sending them to the president’s desk before the end of the fiscal year. To be fair, no one expects Congress to actually complete the job on time this year for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it has been more than 20 years since Congress has passed all the appropriations bills prior to the end of the fiscal year.
This year is especially challenging for a variety of reasons. In theory, the budget and appropriations process has a sequence – the president proposes a budget early in the year, the House and Senate pass budget resolutions in the spring, then the two chambers hammer out a compromise that sets spending limits that are communicated to the appropriations subcommittees. At least that’s the theory.
This year, the president’s budget proposal did not arrive until late May. (The first budget of new presidents are expected to be late, and Trump followed this tradition.) More unusually, neither the House nor the Senate has passed a budget resolution for fiscal year2018. And, in turn, no actual spending limits have been announced. So the public does not know if the appropriators are planning to spend according to Trump’s spending levels, the broad limitations of the Budget Control Act and its successors, or if Congress will abandon the spending limits – either for both domestic and Pentagon spending, or just for Pentagon spending – or if Congress will once again use the Overseas Contingency Operations account as a slush fund for excess Pentagon spending.
Again, in theory, this should make it difficult for the appropriations process to move forward.
But in these unusual times, the theory and practice of governing once again diverge. Congress has already started writing and editing the appropriations bills, despite the absence of a budget resolution or announced spending limits for each bill. The first appropriations bill to have received action in the House is the one that funds the Department of Veterans Affairs and military construction for the Department of Defense. This is one of the most politically popular appropriations bills and has a definite “feel good” element to it. After all, who doesn’t want to support programs for our veterans and construction projects that make life on military bases more amenable?
The House Appropriations Committee touts the large increase to the overall bill total of $88.8 billion, roughly half a billion below the president’s request, and $6 billion more than last year’s bill. Of that increase, the Department of Veterans Affairs receives $4 billion and military construction is increased a whopping $2.1 billion (or 25 percent) over last year. Unfortunately, within that increase to military construction is $638 million for overseas military construction funded in the out-of-control Overseas Contingency Operations account.
As I write this column, there are no publicly available details to show where these overseas contingency dollars are being spent. But my organization is on record as pointing out that military construction, which requires years of planning and design, is the antithesis of a contingency. And Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney, used to agree with us. In fact, he teamed up with then-Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is now in the Senate, to offer an amendment to strip similar projects when he was a House Member. How quickly they forget.
What can we expect from the rest of the appropriations season? The House can usually pass all 12 appropriations bills since they only need a majority vote to pass the chamber, and the news broke that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is advising appropriators to use fiscal year 2017 levels as their starting point. Still, the chances of the Senate passing all bills before the end of the year are next to zero.
Some lawmakers are already predicting Congress will get it over with and just pass a year-long continuing resolution – which would be in keeping with McConnell’s direction. Others are worried about or hoping for an omnibus bill, which would allow for a departure from last year’s spending levels, but be unlikely to allow for amendments. Either way, members of Congress is behaving as if it would like to get the pesky business of appropriating our tax dollars off their plates.
I realize that bemoaning the terrible state of the appropriations process may seem to miss the larger questions facing our democracy – a foreign power interfering with our elections, a polarized population that does not even agree on basic factual matters, the ongoing threat of terrorism and many other challenges. But the ability of Congress and other institutions empowered by the constitution to perform their basic functions is in fact, a critical measure of our ability as a country to overcome these challenges. Congress should stop treating appropriations like an afterthought and start exercising their coveted power of the purse responsibly.