Federal budget: Congress's return to bad spending habits

Congress has spent all its time on other efforts, like healthcare. Now, time is running short to pass a federal budget, and Congress is having to take its typical shortcuts.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom
From left to right, Sen. Jon Kyl, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Michael D. Crapo are seen during a news conference on Dec 10.

Congress is on a tear to wrap up spending bills, extend an otherwise expiring estate tax, and raise the national debt limit by $1.9 trillion by year's end.

Getting there will involve some of the toughest votes of the year, especially for lawmakers who won their seats on a pledge to restore fiscal balance to Washington.

The push to move the Big Three reform bills – healthcare, financial regulation, and climate change – has all but eclipsed the annual business of paying the bills to fund the government. Now those deadlines are piling up.

In a bid to avoid a government shutdown Dec. 18, the House is pushing to complete work on the fiscal year 2010 defense spending bill. As a must-pass bill, it’s also a vehicle for other leadership priorities, such as a new jobs bill, a six-month extension of unemployment insurance, and a controversial debt limit increase.

The Senate on Sunday voted a $446.8 billion omnibus spending bill to fund the other five of the six remaining appropriations bills for fiscal year 2010.

The 'pork' process

It’s not the year end that Democrats had hoped or that President Obama had promised. Mr. Obama campaigned to end the former GOP majority’s habit of defaulting to omnibus spending bills that lump several bills into one, rather than having a robust floor debate on each individual bill.

Absent floor scrutiny, omnibus bills are typically loaded with members' pork-barrel projects. Democrats made an effort to trim the pork in this year’s omnibus package. The fiscal year 2010 spending bills passed so far include 7,577 disclosed earmarks worth $6 billion, according to the watchdog groups Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS). But the defense spending bill, yet to be passed, typically includes nearly as many lawmaker special projects as all the others combined – $4.9 billion in FY 2009.

“We’ve seen slight progress at least in the reductions and dollar amounts of earmarks, and we certainly know a lot more about them than we did just a few years ago,” says TCS vice president Steve Ellis, referring to new transparency requirements for earmarks launched by the Democratic majority. “But we’re still spending billions on projects that represent a political process rather than a merit-based process."

'We ran out of time'

Asked whether Obama would veto the FY 2010 defense appropriations bill because of earmarks he campaigned to curb, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the number of earmarks is down 15 percent.

“There’s no doubt we’ve still got a long way to go, but I think one of the goals obviously is to keep the government functioning,” he said.

Senate Democrats and Republicans exchanged volleys on who is to blame for a pattern – omnibus, earmarks, minimal floor debate – that both sides condemn.

"Unfortunately, we ran out of time," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the majority whip in floor debate opening a rare Saturday session. "We had over 90 different efforts made to stop debate on the Senate floor on a variety of measures," including four weeks of delay on a bill to extend unemployment benefits that wound up passing unanimously.

"This is the bill which, for those who have not been following closely, cleans up a little bit of a mess that the Congress has created because we did not do our work earlier in the year," shot back Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the GOP whip.

At a briefing with reporters Tuesday, House majority leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that instead of a $1.9 trillion increase in the debt limit, the House will vote on a $200 billion short-term fix this week. The US Treasury Department warns that Congress must raise the debt limit by Dec. 31 to avoid default. With the Senate locked in a healthcare debate, House leaders say that $200 billion is all that can pass the Congress in that time


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