Triumph of Omnibus Bill Is Small Pleasure Indeed

The deal reflects a myopia among lawmakers who fail to see where federal spending brings big benefits to economic growth and society’s future.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 26: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) walks with Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) (L) to a press conference with House Republicans on proposed greenhouse gas standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency September 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The EPA standards for new power plants could significantly impact states that produce and use coal as a source of energy.
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
Jan. 15, 2014, 3:22 p.m.

One of the greatest tra­gedies of the de­cline of Con­gress as a de­lib­er­at­ive le­gis­lat­ive body and an ef­fect­ive over­seer of fed­er­al policy is the de­teri­or­a­tion of the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess.

For many years now, the Ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tees, es­pe­cially the House pan­el, have been sym­bols of dys­func­tion. They have struggled and failed to pass their in­di­vidu­al ap­pro­pri­ations bills — a dozen each year — through one or both houses, and in­to law, leav­ing the spend­ing pro­cess to om­ni­bus con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tions, end-game ne­go­ti­ations, brink­man­ship, and some­times shut­downs. The spend­ing bills have in­creas­ingly re­flec­ted the same par­tis­an and ideo­lo­gic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion that has come to dom­in­ate our polit­ics.

On many oc­ca­sions, bills have emerged from sub­com­mit­tees after com­mend­able bi­par­tis­an ne­go­ti­ations and agree­ment — but when they moved to the House floor, minor­ity mem­bers who had been full par­ti­cipants in con­struct­ing and ap­prov­ing the bills voted against them. Last year, in a telling and de­press­ing ex­ample, a bi­par­tis­an move to get a strong and con­struct­ive home­land se­cur­ity ap­pro­pri­ation fell apart on the House floor when Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers al­lowed de­struct­ive and polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated amend­ments to blow apart the deal and the bill.

As for over­sight, the func­tion has been di­luted and nearly erased; with ideo­lo­gic­al di­vi­sions as sharp as we have, sys­tem­at­ic ef­forts to check wheth­er gov­ern­ment pro­grams are work­ing as they are sup­posed to would mean giv­ing some pat­ina of re­spect­ab­il­ity to the pro­grams, a no-no for the rad­ic­al an­ti­gov­ern­ment caucus.

So the tri­umph of the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill that the House passed Wed­nes­day and that will soon be voted on by the Sen­ate is a big deal — it is the first time in a very long time that House and Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­at­ors, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans, did things the way they should be done, go­ing painstak­ingly through the myri­ad ac­counts and al­loc­at­ing scarce dol­lars to fit pri­or­it­ies, mak­ing dozens or hun­dreds of trade-offs to sat­is­fy both parties and their caucuses without des­troy­ing key pro­grams or dam­aging the pos­sib­il­ity of a broad bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion in sup­port.

Look­ing at the pack­age, one can see the del­ic­ate bal­ances, and mar­vel at the in­genu­ity of Bar­bara Mikul­ski, Har­old Ro­gers, and the oth­er lead­ers and mem­bers of the two pan­els. Pre­serve the core fund­ing for Obama­care — but cut $1.5 bil­lion from the pres­id­ent’s re­quest, and cut just over a bil­lion from the Pre­ven­tion and Pub­lic Health Fund. Drop the crip­pling policy riders from im­ple­ment­a­tion of the Dodd-Frank fin­an­cial reg­u­la­tion re­gime, but cut fund­ing well be­low the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­quest for both the Com­mod­it­ies Fu­tures Trad­ing Com­mis­sion and the Se­cur­it­ies and Ex­change Com­mis­sion. Add money to com­bat forest fires in the West to mol­li­fy Re­pub­lic­ans and add money to the budget of the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency to mol­li­fy Demo­crats. More money for Head Start — and more money for de­fense. And on and on.

The odds are that this huge pack­age — more than 1,500 pages of le­gis­lat­ive lan­guage and de­tail — will be passed by both houses and en­acted in­to law. (One won­ders how many mem­bers will “read the bill,” and which mem­bers or out­side groups will ob­ject strenu­ously to quick and ex­ped­ited pas­sage of a bill of so many hun­dreds of pages.) And the pas­sage will be more than just an ex­ample of art­ful work in the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess, a true rar­ity these days. It eases us past the worst and most de­struct­ive res­ults of the se­quester, the hor­rible, mind­less, across-the-board spend­ing cuts that were de­signed ex­pli­citly not to oc­cur. And it will take the patho­lo­gies that have af­flic­ted the ap­pro­pri­ations dy­nam­ic largely off the grid for al­most two years, which is an achieve­ment in and of it­self.

So why am I less than thrilled? One reas­on is the bot­tom line. The num­bers for dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing, when con­sidered in real terms, are 10 per­cent less than they were in the George W. Bush pres­id­ency. This num­ber leaves many Re­pub­lic­ans giddy, tan­gible evid­ence of their vic­tor­ies in re­strain­ing spend­ing. But to me the is­sue is not simply spend­ing. It is what we are spend­ing tax dol­lars on, and where re­straint is fool­ish and coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. Fund­ing for the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health is high­er than it would have been un­der the se­quester, but sig­ni­fic­antly lower than it was un­der Bush, and way lower than it should be if we want to spare the so­ci­ety the im­mense costs and pain that come from de­bil­it­at­ing dis­eases, and if we want to pre­serve our su­perb sci­entif­ic in­fra­struc­ture and brain­power. This one is a simple, com­pel­ling cost-be­ne­fit ana­lys­is: Most ba­sic med­ic­al re­search is solely or largely fun­ded by gov­ern­ment, and it saves lives and re­duces long-term med­ic­al costs, while the re­turn on in­vest­ment is high. And the deep­er, dam­aging se­quester cuts are set to re­sume in two years.

The deal thus re­flects a my­opia across way too many law­makers, a fail­ure to see where fed­er­al spend­ing brings big be­ne­fits to eco­nom­ic growth and so­ci­ety’s fu­ture. That is true of in­fra­struc­ture, which con­tin­ues to get short­changed des­pite huge needs and its clear boost to the eco­nomy. And the fact that the same week we saw this spend­ing deal emerge we saw yet an­oth­er re­buff to un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance (UI) for the long-term un­em­ployed, which is a proven im­me­di­ate boost­er to the eco­nomy, with de­mands to pay for something that has routinely been ex­ten­ded in the past without a pay-for.

If the spend­ing deal, which was set in mo­tion by the budget deal craf­ted by Paul Ry­an and Patty Mur­ray, was a sign that we have turned a corner to­ward art­ful com­prom­ise and away from line-in-the-sand tri­bal dys­func­tion, my un­ease might be dis­missed as mere carp­ing. But I see no signs that this deal is any­thing oth­er than a one-off. With but 97 days in par­tial or full ses­sion set for the 113th House; with a bar­ren agenda oth­er than in­vest­ig­at­ing Obama­care, and prob­ably Benghazi and the IRS; with the farm bill founder­ing yet again; and with the bit­ter par­tis­an dy­nam­ic on dis­play in the Sen­ate over UI, the signs of life are slim.

So a Con­gress-watch­er and Con­gress-lov­er will give the ap­pro­pri­at­ors their due, be grate­ful for small pleas­ures — and brace for more of the usu­al in the rest of 2014.

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