It’s been governance by crisis the past two years in Washington.
First it was the debt-ceiling standoff that nearly wrecked the nation’s credit rating, then there was the two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration after a partisan dispute over unionization of airline workers, and finally a reauthorization bill last year after four years and 20 short-term funding extensions, nine extensions of the surface transportation bill because lawmakers in Congress couldn’t agree on funding levels until an agreement last summer, the “fiscal cliff ” that was averted by a last-minute tax increase in January, and sequestration March 1 (best described as a “fiscal slope” because of its gradual spending cuts over several months).
Now get ready for March 27, the next time the government could go over the edge. On that day, the six-month continuing resolution that authorizes government spending in the absence of full appropriations bills expires and the government would be forced to shut down all non-essential services.
Congress is constitutionally required to control the nation’s purse strings. It normally approves a dozen appropriations bills covering various departments, but when bills can’t be completed before the beginning of the fiscal year it packages the separate appropriations bills into one, giant omnibus bill. Omnibus bills led to complaints that members did not have enough time to review the contents and about wasteful spending inserted for lawmakers’ pet projects.
In the past two years, Congress passed full-year continuing resolutions instead of omnibus bills. Last fall it passed a six-month CR. When Congress can’t get its budget work done in time, it passes a short-term spending plan that essentially puts the government in a holding pattern for a certain period. Spending and legislative policies are maintained at the previous year’s levels, which leaves agencies and contractors with great uncertainty about long-term planning and hiring, and whether to undertake new initiatives.
The assumption that Congress would at least take care of budget business through the imperfect vehicle of omnibus legislation or a CR no longer holds true, Rachel Milberg, a majority staff member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development, said in a presentation to state transportation officials in Washington to lobby for support of infrastructure funding.
Some Republican lawmakers are threatening to vote against another six-month CR, and shut down the government, if they don’t get spending concessions, such as blocking funds to implement President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
“There’s a level of brinkmanship, there’s a level of management by crisis, there’s an increased willingness to make decisions through the electoral process by seeing who wins rather than through a traditional legislative process of debate and compromise,” Milberg said at the spring meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The ideological battles over taxing and spending hang over everything else on Congress’ plate.
Milberg said the Republican leadership in the House has proposed producing appropriations bills for Defense and Veterans Affairs programs and having a CR to fund the rest of the government, but Senate Democrats favor a full omnibus bill because they place great importance in non-Defense programs as well.
In light of the current environment, Milberg said it’s reasonable to wonder whether funding levels authorized in MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century enacted last year to fund highway and transit programs at $105 billion over two years) will be approved.
“My bosses believe very much very much in the value of investing in infrastructure and they want to see MAP-21 levels honored,” she said, referring to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Md., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and other Democrats such as Diane Feinstein of California and Patty Murray of Washington.
Pointing in favor of full funding is the fact members on both sides of the aisle tend to believe in the value of the transportation system and MAP-21 was enacted at a time when most other legislation never got off the floor of the House or Senate, Milberg said.
The best way to bring stability and openness to the legislative process is by returning to regular order, Milberg said. Sen. Mikulski has stated that is how she intends to run her committee.
Regular order essentially means that the House and Senate abide by their procedural rules rather than concluding deals behind closed doors. Every member of the House – even in the minority party – is allowed to offer amendments, both houses complete their budgets on time, programs must go through committee oversight and be authorized or they don’t get funded, House and Senate negotiators convene in formal sessions to reconcile legislation, and emergency spending requests are not taken off-budget.
But regular order can suck up a lot of time and can lead to political surprises for leaders of the party in power, which is why they usually try to exert more control over the legislative process.
Ron Brownstein, executive director of the National Journal, said on CNN‘s Your Money program in late February that sentiment on Capitol Hill seems to be moving away from shutting down the government. Republicans are more interested in taking the forced budget cuts ($85 billion for fiscal year 2013) that went into effect March 1 and codifying them in a CR to extend government funding for the rest of the year and, in effect, daring the Democrats to shut down the government by refusing to accept those cuts in discretionary and Defense spending.
Sen. Boxer gets laugh at AASHTO conference. Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, poked fun last week at the names given to transportation bills.
She was instrumental in passage of the two-year surface transportation reauthorization bill last summer known as MAP-21, for Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, and will be one of the key players in shepherding a new multi-year spending blueprint through Congress next year, when MAP-21 expires.
Boxer spoke at a gathering of state transportation secretaries and officials in Washington for a legislative update. Members of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) spent the previous day visiting lawmakers to press for a fix to the gas tax-system and expanded funding for transportation infrastructure.
Boxer, a California Democrat, pointed out that the five-year bill prior to MAP-21 – the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users or SAFETEA-LU – was named in part because Don Young, R-Alaska, who was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2005, wanted to honor his wife Lulu.
“So I thought what an opportunity I had. I went home to my husband and said I’ve got really great news. When he named the bill he named it after his wife and I can name it after you – SAFETEA-STEW,” Boxer said of her husband Stewart.
“He said, ‘I will kill you.’ So we got MAP-21 instead.” – Eric Kulisch
It’s been governance by crisis the past two years in Washington.