Weakening oversight: Two warning signs in appropriations

Weakening oversight: Two warning signs in appropriations
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The latest government shutdown, with another spending deadline looming, once again has led to cries that the budget process is broken.

As disruptive as shutdowns may be, there is a deeper and potentially more damaging problem unfolding: the weakening of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

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The Appropriations Committee historically has been the anchor in the storm of congressional budgetary showdowns. The committee is powerful, independent and staffed by experts capable of writing high-quality legislation under challenging conditions.

 

Even in the most contentious of years, the dozen Appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate held hearings, conducted mark-ups, passed their bills and issued accompanying reports. The individual bills often did not reach the floor on a stand-alone basis, but the committee’s work formed the basis of the final omnibus package that Congress would adopt.

The committee’s work has risen in importance as opportunities to debate appropriations bills on the floor have declined. Most members will have little to no opportunity to influence the policy choices made in spending bills. Congress depends more than ever on the committee to ensure that spending decisions on government programs — many of which have bipartisan support — are thoughtfully made.

But years of constant crises appear to be taking their toll. The inability of Congress to finalize one year’s budget means that critical work preparing for the next is delayed and rushed. Committee members and staff operate in a state of exhaustion because their work is never finished.

Two particularly urgent warning signs that the committee’s internal workings are in trouble have emerged.

First, a review of the House Appropriations Committee’s annual reports since the 104th Congress shows a precipitous drop in its information gathering. In the 104th Congress, the committee reported holding 457 days of hearings and calling 6,999 witness, producing 174,576 pages of documentation as it prepared the annual spending bills. In the 114th Congress, the committee reported just 191 hearings, called 664 witnesses, and produced 126,309 pages of documentation. That’s a staggering decline.

The committee’s work is only as good as the information at its disposal. The weakening of its oversight capacity will lead to more poorly drafted legislation and effectively transfer power to the Executive Branch. Members and staff stand little chance of challenging administration budgets if they aren’t well informed.

Second, the normally clockwork practice of the committee writing its bills is fraying. Four Senate Appropriations subcommittees were unable to complete their work in 2017, opting to post draft legislation on their websites. The Senate failed to report the Interior-Environment bill in 2012. The worst offender was the House in 2010, when leaders failed to report 10 of the 12 spending bills and negotiated an omnibus instead.

These failures are troubling because both chambers — but especially the Senate — often fail to bring individual appropriations bills to the floor for debate anymore. If the Appropriations Committee routinely fails to report bills as well, there will be no formal process at all by which bills are drafted, approved and made available for public review. Bills will be written out of sight and hurriedly passed in a year-end omnibus, having barely seen the light of day.

Such a development would hurt rank-and-file members Congress by shutting them out of legislating. It would cause even greater harm to citizens, interest groups, and other stakeholders who have an enormous amount at stake in these bills. They would have little opportunity to learn about or react to decisions that harm their interests. Finally, writing bills entirely behind closed doors would be an invitation to sloppy work and bad decision-making.  

The Appropriations Committee’s quiet professionalism has guided Congress through many a tough budget cycle. If its capacity to produce legislation is eroding, then the most challenging times for appropriations are still ahead.

Peter Hanson is an assistant professor of political science and a specialist in American politics at Grinnell College. His research explores the politics of Congress. He is the author of “Too Weak to Govern: Majority Party Power and Appropriations in the U.S. Senate” (Cambridge 2014).