By Russell Berman - 05/12/11 10:17 AM EDT
House Republicans have abandoned a campaign proposal by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to draft spending bills by agency instead of lumping Cabinet departments together in bulky appropriations measures.
Boehner issued the plan in a speech on congressional reform last September, but the Appropriations Committee says it received no instructions from the leadership to follow through with it.
Boehner’s proposal was designed to subject the federal budget to greater scrutiny by forcing lawmakers to judge agencies and departments on an individual basis. Under the current system, for example, the Cabinet departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services are combined in one appropriations bill, as are the departments of Transportation and Housing.
“Let’s do away with the concept of ‘comprehensive’ spending bills,” Boehner, then the House minority leader, said in his September speech at the American Enterprise Institute. “Let’s break them up, to encourage scrutiny, and make spending cuts easier. Rather than pairing agencies and departments together, let them come to the House floor individually, to be judged on their own merit.
“Members shouldn’t have to vote for big spending increases at the Labor Department in order to fund Health and Human Services,” Boehner said. “Members shouldn’t have to vote for big increases at the Commerce Department just because they support NASA. Each department and agency should justify itself each year to the full House and Senate, and be judged on its own.”
Boehner’s proposal met resistance from top Republicans on the Appropriations Committee, and the item was not included in the GOP’s Pledge to America, which was issued the week before Boehner's speech. Since Republicans took control of the House in January, panel members said there has been little talk of putting it into practice.
“I’ve not had a chance to talk to the Speaker about that,” Rogers told The Hill on Wednesday. Rogers has committed to finishing the 2012 budget bills by the end of the fiscal year in September, and he suggested that breaking up the legislation into more than 12 pieces at this point in the fiscal year would be unfeasible.
“We’re already taking up the whole floor for the whole summer with the 12 bills, so it’d be a radical restructuring if we did that,” the chairman said.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), chairman of the Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee, blamed the delay in approving the 2011 spending bill for forcing the leadership’s hand on Boehner’s proposed reform.
“In the chaotic atmosphere where we had to devote so much time finishing the unfinished business of last year … it took longer than we wanted it to,” Kingston said, “so that’s put a crunch on it.
Another Appropriations cardinal, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Wyo.), said drafting separate bills for each agency “decreases the flexibility” for lawmakers because it would make it harder for members to shift funds between departments during an open amendment process on the floor.
“It would create havoc on the floor and it would take a lot more floor time,” Simpson said. “I can’t see the advantage.”
Republicans say they are still planning to improve the appropriations process over recent years by allowing open amendments on the floor for each of the 12 bills.
A Boehner spokesman, Michael Steel, noted that the Speaker’s reform proposals were not simply about breaking up the spending bills. “The Speaker is committed to the reforms that were put forth last year, which has been clearly communicated to the Appropriations Committee,” Steel said, “and we are committed to moving forward on an appropriations process that meets the goals.”
One government watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, was prepared to give Republicans some leeway on the 2012 budget.
“While I’d give them a mulligan for [fiscal] 2012, we should be looking at ways to improve the process for 2013,” said Steve Ellis, the group’s vice president.
This story was updated at 9:37 a.m.