Thursday, October 13, 2011
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In the 112th Congress, every routine fiscal measure--whether it's a continuing funding resolution to carry spending into a new fiscal year, or a vote to raise the federal debt limit--has become an occasion for deeply partisan bickering and last-minute solutions to avoid a government shut-down or imminent credit failure. It didn't used to be this way. Sure, Congress would often need to pass a continuing spending bill to buy some time to finish up work on a handful of appropriations bills yet to be enacted by both chambers. When it came to raising the debt limit, it was a straight up or down vote, without the entrenched bargaining positions staked out to address a political agenda focused on the next election cycle.
There is a place for the spending battles to engage, and it's in the appropriations bills. Somehow, the appropriations process has not offered enough grandstanding opportunities to a faction of legislators driven by angry Tea Party voters. A score of victories in the 2010 congressional races has left plenty of legislators scared of their own fiscal shadow. It doesn't have to be this way.
Last week, one Republican Senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee--not a Tea Party member, but a loyal party member--stepped forward. He decided to forego the opportunity he had to rise within the Senate Republican leadership. He said that he felt he could act more independently--collaboratively within the Senate--if he were not tied to the "party line." It was a brave, selfless and highly unusual move in these political times on Capitol Hill. One hopes that others will follow Alexander's lead and pledge to move the dial away from turbulence and closer toward governance in the U.S. Congress.
Meanwhile, the appropriations process--where the real spending decisions are, or at least should be, made--sits inactive. The House and Senate together have only passed one 2012 money bill, that for military construction and veterans affairs. No others have passed the Senate, while the House has voted out seven of the twelve appropriations measures. The Interior Appropriations Bill, with funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, is among those held in limbo on the House floor.
In early August, before adjourning for the summer recess, the House spent several days debating the bill and voting on amendments to alter spending levels in the bill set by the Appropriations Committee. Amendments to cut arts endowment funding for the National Endowment for the Arts below the $135 million level provided in the bill were defeated on recorded votes. Further action was put on hold when Congress took up the bill to raise the debt ceiling and create the bipartisan, bicameral super committee formed to try to solve the nation's fiscal headaches.
There is no word on whether the House will resume debate and take a final vote on the Interior money bill. The House and Senate have agreed to keep funding flowing at least until November 18. Once Congress gets through another couple of continuing resolutions to fund the government in the new fiscal year starting October 1, expect a single omnibus appropriations bill to wrap up all the funding measures in one package. Then heave a sigh of momentary relief before the next senseless debate grabs the headlines--as intended.