Congress’ spending cycle has reached peak dysfunction, so much so that a return to the era of earmarks looks good.
Lawmakers’ failure to accomplish the most basic function of funding the government is now spurring talk of “fixing” the budget process and reviving pork-barrel spending outlawed when the GOP took control of Congress.
A “kick-the-can” spending strategy of pushing off spending decisions for weeks or months, resulting in repeated threats of government shutdowns, is nothing new. The latest deadline to avert a shutdown is Friday.
But the entire first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has been an endless series of fiscal cliffs: The debt ceiling. Government spending caps. Even funding for a popular children’s health program.
Lawmakers are now staring down their fourth shutdown fight in four months, a struggle that some long-serving leaders of spending panels say is beginning to feel sadly normal. Each time, GOP and Democratic leaders have come into negotiations with a big stack of tough demands — but then rush into an eleventh-hour deal to simply punt.
“Anybody with any common sense recognizes it’s a broken process,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a member of the Appropriations Committee and incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, told POLITICO.
On Wednesday, members will line up before the House Rules Committee to talk about why they might want to again allow the practice of earmarking pet projects in home districts and states. It’s doubtful that would happen this year, and no promises are being made, but the idea has gained speed among the frustrated lawmakers who control spending.
The earmark debate was put on hold in the fall of 2016 in the wake of Trump’s “drain the swamp” victory. But now, even Trump has endorsed earmarks, and some Republicans say it could get things moving again.
“When we appropriate the money but didn’t know what it was going for, I had no skin in the game. I was just appropriating money,” Rules Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said.
But with earmarks, Sessions said lawmakers from Michigan, for example, would be far more likely to vote for a bill that included funding for a new Great Lakes initiative.
As frustrations have boiled over, several members of the GOP-led House Budget Committee also have said it’s time to reexamine Congress’ decades-old budgeting law that governs how money is spent.
“The Budget Act was 1974. We have to go back and look at that,” departing Budget Chairman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said in an interview last week.
One of the proposed changes: Moving to a calendar-year schedule for appropriations, instead of a fiscal year.
Another is a budget cycle that would run every two years — something that has been opposed by appropriators in the past but could be gaining traction within the House GOP.
“Maybe we have to take this in bite-sized pieces,” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) told POLITICO in an interview earlier this month as he mounted a campaign for the budget gavel.
This year, Congress is even further behind than usual. Leaders still haven’t settled on budget caps that dictate how much to spend in the fiscal year that began four months ago. And Congress is on pace to pass at least five different spending patches this fiscal year — the most since 2015.
The splintered cycle is pushing Congress’ long-trusted spending leaders to their limits, eroding resolve and testing their abilities to draft bills. Some believe they’ve lost power and clout.
“The benefits to being an appropriator aren’t what they used to be,” Womack said. “So there aren’t as many people coveting a spot as there used to be.”
During the last decade, Congress has sharply veered from its tradition of drafting, vetting and approving each of the 12 spending bills on its own. In fact, lawmakers haven’t separately passed each appropriations measure since 1994.
The result is 112 stopgap spending bills during the last two decades, some lasting as long as a full year. The crippling cycle of those spending patches keeps federal departments — including the Pentagon — in limbo, potentially stalling key new programs or purchases.
“It’s not just a loss for one party or the other, no matter who the president is. It’s a loss when you have this kind of uncertainty and chaos and instability,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), a spending leader who was first elected in 1987. “Just because it’s gone on for so long doesn’t mean it’s any less of a disaster. We never, ever should think of this as a new normal.”
This year, the delay largely stems from the GOP’s push to enact a once-in-a-generation tax overhaul. Republican leaders decided to postpone controversial budget decisions — including a crucial deal with Democrats to avoid a sequester — to keep their entire party in line on the tax bill.
In early December, when top Republicans could smell victory in passing the tax plan, they urged disgruntled rank-and-file members to back a second stopgap, even in the absence of a deal on overall budget caps essential to writing more granular funding levels.
Emerging from that GOP strategy meeting, Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) bemoaned the demise of “regular order” in the funding process, noting that discouragement was starting to set in for members who spent all summer hashing out spending specifics that would once again fall by the wayside.
“That wire’s getting pretty thin,” Amodei said at the time. “It’s kind of like going and buying a car every year and then going, ‘But you can’t have the keys. Nice work, you people over there on the south side, on that money stuff. But nobody cares.’”
Emerging from a closed-door meeting Tuesday, GOP lawmakers heard the same plea from Speaker Paul Ryan to swallow their fourth stopgap bill.
Rep. Hal Rogers, (R-Ky.), one of the longest-serving members of Congress, said he believes it will be the last short-term bill, but he said he can’t be sure until leadership reaches a budget deal. When asked about the possibility of yet another one, the 80-year old former chairman rolled his eyes and pretended to hold a noose around his neck.
The White House plans to release its fiscal 2019 budget in about three weeks, piling on new spending goals while Congress still has the book open for fiscal 2018.
Because legislators plan to vote this week on a short-term bill likely funding the government through President’s Day, the Trump administration’s budget rollout could get delayed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell memorably promised to restore regular order in January 2016, on the eve of a crucial midterm election for his party. But within months, he had relented and agreed to another stopgap funding bill.
McConnell ultimately encouraged his own party to support another catchall omnibus, after enduring fierce battles over funding for Planned Parenthood and display of the Confederate flag.
This time around, the Senate made no attempt to approve all 12 bills under “regular order” in committee. In fact, the Senate’s spending panel decided to forgo its traditional markups on its four most contentious measures, including for the Department of Defense.
Frustrated by the Senate’s inaction, House GOP lawmakers decided to push ahead with passage of their own spending bills in September — a feat Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) attributes to restoring some faith in the appropriations process.
“They actually see in the House that we’ve finally done something that we haven’t done in a long time,” said Cole, a longtime appropriator. “It surprised the rest of the conference because they saw the appropriations committee really can produce all these bills on time. We have not been the problem.”
All 12 of those House bills were packed with partisan priorities that stood no chance in the Senate, though. And the measures quickly became magnets for the kinds of long-sizzling political fights GOP leaders have carefully tried to keep off the floor.
Budget experts, like the Brooking Institutions’ Molly Reynolds, say the spending process has become a battleground for political conflicts when debate has been choked off elsewhere.
That includes this month’s fight over immigration, which is threatening to hold up a deal on spending caps.
“A lot of dysfunction is a symptom of broader struggles that Congress is having,” Reynolds said.
Veteran lawmakers say the centuries-old spending process has been withering for a generation. Once-autonomous appropriators have been increasingly usurped by party leaders on key decisions.
But lawmakers say there’s another cause that has deepened the dysfunction in Congress: the tea party wave in 2010.
Since then, only one individual spending measure has made it to the president’s desk — the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill, three years ago. And even that non-contentious measure missed the Oct. 1 deadline, only moving ahead of the omnibus due to urgency for $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus.
“When I first arrived here, members understood that we needed to pass all the appropriations bills,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who was first elected in 2004, told POLITICO.
Dent said fewer and fewer of his House Republican colleagues are willing to strike deals on domestic funding priorities like medical research. They’re also loathe to acknowledge the political reality that any spending bill will need support from Senate Democrats.
In the end, many of those hard-line conservatives vote against omnibus bills, forcing top Republican negotiators into tight corners with Democrats, and even endangering their leadership positions.
“The problem around here is we give far too much consideration and take too much advice from people who aren’t voting for the bills anyways,” Dent said, referring to House conservatives who demand concessions from GOP leaders and then refuse to vote for the final bills. “They get to drive the process. They get to determine what the hell goes in the bills that they’re not voting for.”
Dent plans to retire this fall, in part, he said, because of the growing “dysfunction, disorder and chaos” on Capitol Hill.