No Easy Fix to Congressional Budgeting Woes

As The New York Times reported earlier this week, perennial negotiations on the thirteen federal appropriations bills have stalled once again. Despite early handshake agreements between congressional leaders, it seems that the upcoming recess in September will come and go with only one of the thirteen bills passed. Per The Times:

Democrats have accused the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, of backtracking on a deal reached last fall that, in hopes of avoiding another last-minute showdown, set top-line spending limits. Mr. McConnell and other Republicans say they have abided by the agreement all along, but Democrats accused the Republicans of trickery and said in effect that they were ending negotiations on the individual spending bills.

According to the report, the main snag was the defense bill. Democrats pointed to an agreement made last fall in which McConnell and other Republicans promised to increase spending in both military and nonmilitary categories at the same rate. McConnell responded with outrage at Democrats for damaging military readiness and playing politics with national security.

The Times goes on to say that the breakdown will instead open the door for another omnibus spending package this fall or at least a stopgap measure intended to fund the government past the election and into early 2017. Even with the Senate in tangles on how to proceed, the House has continued to take up appropriations bills without the procedural hurtles Senate Republicans face.

As Tate wrote earlier, both Congressman Tom Price and Senator David Perdue have expressed dismay at the dilapidated state of our federal budgeting process. Perdue’s statement also contends that “…the debt crisis cannot be solved until we fix the budget process.”

The next logical question is: how exactly do we fix the budget process? The Times:

John Feehery, a veteran Republican political consultant who served as the top spokesman for J. Dennis Hastert, a former House speaker, said the problems ran far deeper than election-year politics and showed that the federal appropriations process was fundamentally broken. Mr. Feehery, like many experienced Washington hands, has lamented the elimination of lawmaker-directed spending items, known as earmarks, which were much maligned in the news media but often served a crucial role in delivering votes from both parties for spending bills.

While earmarks have served as the faithful whipping boy of congressional Republicans for nearly a decade now, there seems to be a rather compelling case to bring them back. Feehery goes on to say:

With lawmakers largely unable to promote spending items that benefit their home states and districts, Mr. Feehery noted, they now have far more incentive to pursue votes on politically charged provisions that cater to their supporters than to broker compromises with the opposition. “Congress only works when both parties have a shared interest in making the spending process work,” Mr. Feehery said. “But because earmarks have gone away, there is very little to compel members to pass these bills. They used to have a vested interest in passing these bills because they could bring home the bacon. These days, it makes little difference to members whether they pass the bills or just wait for an omnibus in a lame duck.”

Over the past six years, Republicans have implemented various budgetary reforms aimed at restraining out of control federal spending. One of the more popular ideas, despite it never accounting for more than 3% of all appropriations, was to stop allowing members of Congress the right to “earmark” appropriated funds to a specific entity in his or her district. What’s important to know is that the funds are already allocated in the discretionary spending authorizations – earmarks only allow our elected representatives to assign a specific purpose to the funds. At present, most of that work is done by the executive branch.

Retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski, who has had a long tenure on the Senate Appropriations Committee, recently lamented the absence of earmarks. Roll Call picked up her remarks and published a very compelling story well worth the read, here. As the article states, in the harmless ‘bad habit’ of earmarks, there’s something for everyone to love. Whether it is about retaining the constitutional power of the purse, bringing home the pork for constituents, or greasing the increasingly stagnant wheels of Congress, earmarking has all of the right boxes checked.

Our budgeting process is broken. With such a monumental task ahead of anyone aspiring to address our nation’s fiscal problems, reinstating the practice of earmarking federal appropriations looks to be a significant step in the right direction.

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