Dog days of summer

The dog days of summer used to be dedicated to the appropriations process on Capitol Hill. 

Both the House and the Senate would slog through 13 spending bills, usually under an open amendment process. Members of the various subcommittees would fend off hostile amendments, defending projects, programs and spending levels.

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When the bills passed the House or Senate floors, members of both bodies would put out press releases, touting the bacon they would be bringing home for local constituencies.

And back home, those constituents would applaud news of funds from Washington, to build bridges, to fund the local Veterans Affairs hospital, or whatever else was being touted by those press releases.

The appetite for pork has seemingly subsided, however, and members don’t broadcast as widely their success in steering money back home to their districts.

At least, that’s the theory.

The House of Representatives is now in its third year of an earmark ban. You can pretty much trace the collapse in congressional approval with the banning of congressional pork. In February 2005, Congress’s approval rating was 45 percent. August 2009 was the last time Congress had an approval rating above 30 percent. Since the House banned the use of earmarks in January 2010, according to Gallup, its approval ratings haven’t cracked 25 percent. For the last eight months, Congress’s approval rating has been mired in the teens. 

There are a lot of reasons why Congress is unpopular with the American people. The economy is still stagnant. Fierce partisanship infects political debate. And when Congress actually agrees on something, it is usually the wrong thing, like tax increases and a sequester rather than tax and entitlement reform. 

But the failure to do its basic constitutional duty of enacting spending bills in regular order has to be a top reason for the low ratings. And making it impossible for members to go home and tout what they have done for their constituents through the earmarking process hasn’t helped. 

To its credit, the House of Representatives will actually put most appropriations bills on the floor this summer. The Senate, sadly, will do nothing of the sort. Senators will be lucky to get the various bills through the subcommittee and full committee process. 

So, this summer will be wasted, as members of both chambers of the Congress wait for the president and the congressional leadership to reach a new agreement on a top-line number for the discretionary budget in the context of the debt-limit negotiations. A manufactured debt-limit crisis is surely in the cards, increasing congressional disapproval to new heights. 

New members of the House used to plot and plan and scheme about how they could one day serve on the all-powerful and important Appropriations Committee. Now serving on the spending committee has as much allure as serving on the Ethics Committee. It’s a duty more than an opportunity for advancement. 

You can’t debate the fact that the appropriations process has gone awry over the last several decades and that both parties are to blame for it. But Congress will never gets its mojo back with the American people until it gets back to work with a fixed spending process. 

Congress derives all of its power under the Constitution through the purse strings. By giving that discretion to spend that money to the administration, it loses not only power but also an ability to shape the public’s perception of the legislative branch. 

There is no evidence that members of either chamber are overly concerned about the public’s disgust with Congress’s job performance, but in my humble opinion, they ought to be. When Congress loses the respect of the people, it becomes corrosive to our representative democracy. 

Fixing the appropriations process and getting back to regular order would help restore faith in Congress and help make our democracy stronger. A lack of progress on congressional spending bills during the dog days of summer will only make voters more cynical about our political system and will make Congress even more unpopular. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.