Frustrated appropriators hoping to salvage work on spending bills

The congressional spending committees are known as among the hardest working in Congress, despite the fact that partisan gridlock often means their 12 annual bills do not get enacted and stopgap measures are used instead.

This year their members are described as “very, very” frustrated that countless hours of work have likely been wasted, and they are searching for relevance in the coming months of spending talks.

On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) struck a deal to punt 2013 spending decisions until next March. They announced Congress will simply extend current funding for six months after the government’s funding runs out Sept. 30.

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House and Senate appropriators had separately crafted almost all of their 2013 bills, and they will be legally irrelevant in the next Congress.

The House passed 6 of its 12 bills and devoted 81 hours to debating them on the floor, often late into the night. The House Appropriations Committee marked up 11 of 12 bills at the full committee level and 12 of 12 at the subcommittee level.

“They represent nearly a year of work,” Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Friday. “We put a lot of effort into those bills.”

He noted that the bills end 166 programs entirely that the committee deemed wasteful.

The Senate did not take up any bills but Senate appropriators moved 11 of 12 through the committee this year. It even acted on two of the bills after the Reid-Boehner deal was already announced.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) appeared vexed this week when asked about the six-month continuing resolution. He said he believes in “regular order.”

Inouye shares Rogers’s frustration, an aide said, given the work that went into the bills.  The defense bill alone targets 475 programs for waste, the aide noted.

Ranking member Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) ire boiled over as soon as the continuing resolution was announced.

“Agreeing to put the government on autopilot for six months is no great achievement,” he said. “Our committee members have done the work of scrutinizing budgets, holding hearings, and drafting bills.  Those bills deserve to be considered by the Senate, negotiated with the House and sent to the President as soon as possible.”

According to a GOP aide, a six-month CR doesn't preclude appropriations activity in the interim.  It still leaves lawmakers needing to fund the government for the remainder of the year.  Nothing is off the table, the aide said.

In the coming months, Sen. Cochran will continue to look for opportunities to advance appropriations measures that make conscious choices about spending on individual programs, and which contain the kind of detailed oversight and policy provisions that reflect the appropriate role of Congress in controlling the federal purse strings, the aide said.

Rogers told the Hill Friday that he hopes the 12 bills can at least become negotiating markers when Congress finally gets around to settling 2013 spending, months after the fiscal year begins.

He also raised the possibility that the bills themselves could still make it into law.

“Just because we did a CR that lasts until March, doesn’t mean we can’t pass bills before that,” he said.

For the bills to be acted upon without being re-introduced, action would have to come in the busy lame duck session where Congress will be wrangling over Bush era tax rates, and a related set of automatic spending cuts known as the sequester.

Appropriations aides said such action would only come if the November election produces the exact status quo Washington now enjoys—a GOP House, a Democratic Senate and Obama in the White House.

“It’s ironic for Rogers—the only way the bills become relevant is if his party makes no gains in the election,” a Democratic aide mused. “I don’t see any appetite to revisit old appropriations bills next year if the election changes anything.”

Even in this scenario, the House and Senate would have to agree on a top-line number for 2013 and these discussions will be difficult with the rest of the fiscal cliff looming. The House bills add up to $1.028 trillion and the Senate bills use the $1.047 trillion figure that the planned continuing resolution, to be voted on next month, will roughly follow.

An aide said that Democrat appropriators also feel that time has been wasted and in general want to follow regular order to make their actions relevant.  

If final action on spending is delayed to late March, appropriators will have a hard time getting 2014 bills, due next September, done. That could lead to a giant omnibus again.

Conservative budget hawk Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is running for Senate, was often at odds with Rogers during his tenure on the Appropriations Committee, but he also hopes the committee work becomes relevant, after a GOP victory in the fall.

“I do think the bills should be used because there were some good amendments and report language, regarding the [Environmental Protection Agency], for example, that should be included in a final spending package,” he said.

Flake says the time spent in the House wasn’t a waste. He blamed the continuing resolution on Senate Democrats who declared this summer they would not be passing or conferencing any individual bills. Democrats had said they were doing that because in their view the House “violated” last August’s debt ceiling deal by seeking $19 billion more in cuts in the House bills.

“Just because the Senate won’t do its job and move on these bills, doesn’t mean the House should also neglect its job,” Flake said in an emailed comment. “Additionally, the guidance provided in the bills will help determine which programs can be justified and will be helpful in determining which duplicative and wasteful programs to cut moving forward.”