Process hurt by blanket denunciation of earmarks — and by obstructionism

As the people’s elected representatives in Congress, one of our most basic responsibilities is to provide the funding needed to keep the federal government up and running. Each year, the House and Senate Appropriations committees go about the business of providing the resources to address critical priorities such as: America’s military, caring for our veterans, vital infrastructure needs, protecting the homeland, healthcare, education and environmental protection, to name just a few.

I strongly believe that the best way to meet these needs is through an appropriations process that adheres to regular order, allowing for a thorough and deliberate examination of each of the 12 annual appropriations bills. For too long, however, Congress has been unable to live up to this responsibility, instead relying upon the crutch of stopgap continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills. This is no way to fund the federal government.

The consequences of this breakdown of regular order have been significant. Despite some recent improvement in the public’s opinion of the Congress, the American people continue to harbor great doubts about the ability of this institution to function properly and to produce legislation that will have a positive impact on their lives. There is no doubt in my mind that much of this skepticism is directly attributable to Congress’s inability to perform its most basic responsibilities in a timely and efficient manner.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am committed to working with Vice Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), members of all 12 subcommittees, and our counterparts in the House to restore regular order to the appropriations process. I have made it clear to my colleagues that it is my intention to have all 12 regular appropriations bills go through committee markup, be considered on the Senate floor, go to a full conference with the House, return to the Senate for a final vote and be sent to the president for his signature. This bipartisan process, in which Democrats and Republicans work together to produce a final product, is the tradition of the Appropriations Committee, and I intend for it to be the future of this committee, as well.

This will be no easy task. The last time all of the individual appropriations bills were completed on time was fiscal 1994. With a packed summer and fall legislative agenda, there will be little time to spare. But I remain confident that we can get it done.

For appropriators, 2009 has, out of necessity, already been a very productive year. To date, the Congress has completed work on three major appropriations bills that were in many respects holdovers from last year:  the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the fiscal 2009 Omnibus, and the fiscal 2009 supplemental appropriations bill. Now we will work to build on these successes by tackling the critical work ahead. Vice Chairman Cochran and I have requested that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set aside ample floor time for consideration of the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills, and I believe Sens. Reid and McConnell fully understand the importance of doing so.

A critical element of restoring order to the appropriations process has been reforming congressionally directed spending, or “earmarking.” I prefer to refer to earmarks as “Congressional Initiatives” because I firmly believe that Congress has a role to play in the budgeting process. The Constitution clearly gives the power of the purse to Congress, and I don’t believe any legislator runs for election so he or she can be a rubber stamp to the executive branch of government. Regrettably, earmarks — which constitute roughly 1 percent of discretionary spending — have dominated media coverage of the appropriations process in recent years. Past abuses by a handful of bad actors have undermined the public’s confidence in the institution of Congress as a whole.

To address this problem, both the House and Senate Appropriations committees earlier this year took aggressive steps to build upon the unprecedented reforms implemented after Democrats took control of Congress in 2007. These new reforms include: posting requests online to offer more opportunity for public scrutiny, early public disclosure of earmark tables, and further cuts that will hold earmarks to below 1 percent of discretionary spending. I am hopeful that these measures will go a long way toward restoring the confidence of the American people in the Congress’s ability to serve as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars.

So what will it take to achieve regular order? We will need to work closely with the House in order to ensure well-organized scheduling and to keep this year’s appropriations process as efficient as possible. And of course, when we bring our bills to the floor, we will need the cooperation of all our colleagues in order to avoid delays that can be fatal to the regular appropriations process. There needs to be a recognition that we face a choice: Either we can bring our bills to the floor, offer and vote on amendments, and vote on final passage; or we can bring our bills to the floor and face obstructionist tactics that make it impossible to pass our bills in the limited floor time that we have available to us. If we cannot pass our bills on time, we will again find ourselves putting together continuing resolutions and, finally, another omnibus.

What I very much hope we will not see are members who obstruct the regular order in July, and then complain about an omnibus in late September. In the end, those are the two choices we face. For all the reasons described above, I hope my colleagues will join with me to support regular order. If we work together, we can again provide the American people with a transparent, efficient appropriations process they can be proud of.

Inouye is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.