Another winter has come in Washington and brought with it another pork-laden omnibus spending bill. Thats right. Thanks to Congresss continued inability to do its job, taxpayers are once again left holding the bag as billions of our hard-earned dollars are wasted.
Countless others have authored columns detailing some of the most egregious of the thousands of pork barrel projects included in the bill. So instead of joining the chorus bemoaning the inclusion of $1 million for the World Birding Center in Texas, $100,000 for a swimming pool in Kansas, or $2 million to buy back the presidential yacht, U.S.S. Sequoia (which the government sold in 1978 for $250,000), lets turn our attention to the larger structural issue.
Congress once again utterly failed to successfully discharge one of its most fundamental duties: writing and approving a federal budget.
Under Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury" unless and until it is appropriated by Congress. Since the founding of the Republic, Congress has employed a number of processes for deciding how much to spend and what to spend it on. The current system was first put in place in 1974.
As the first step under this system, Congress is supposed pass a "budget resolution." This resolution is not law, and its usually ignored. But its supposed to serve as the nations budget blueprint by dividing spending into major categories and setting priorities. This year Congress didnt have to go to the trouble of ignoring the budget resolution. They didnt even bother to pass one.
At the same time, Congresss appropriators go to work. Starting from the Presidents budget request and supposedly working within the confines of the budget resolution, subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee hold hearings and undertake the painstaking process of writing 13 bills that list, line by line, every item on which the federal government can spend money during the coming year.
If things go according to plan, the House and Senate will both finish their work on these 13 bills, reconcile any differences, and send the final versions to the President for his signature before the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1. During their deliberations, the House and Senate are supposed to carefully consider the provisions of each bill and decide which items to fund and not to fund. Certainly, each Member of Congress ought to have a chance to review these 13 bills and consider their impact.
However, things almost never go according to plan. This year, Congress only passed four of the 13 appropriations bills prior to the October deadline. Last year, it did only slightly better. No one can remember the last time ― if ever ― that Congress passed all 13 bills on time.
Instead, in a lame attempt to get its work done ― better late than never, they might say ― Congress often resorts to "omnibus" appropriations bills, wherein the worlds greatest deliberative body lumps together all of the spending bills that they couldnt pass, throws in a hefty serving of pork in order to secure enough votes for passage, and sends the behemoth on to the President.
This year, Congress resorted to an omnibus for the third year in a row. And few, if any, Members read the entire bill that will ultimately fund the federal government this year.
Some say that the budget process is just too difficult to complete in nine months. Hogwash.
If any other worker failed, year after year after year, to get his work done on time, he would be fired. Not so for our 535 elected representatives. If the process is broken, Congress ought to fix it. Otherwise, its time for the whiners in Congress to stop complaining and start working.
The power of the purse ― raising revenue and controlling government spending ― are Congresss most critical functions. Each year that Congress abdicates its constitutionally mandated fiscal responsibility is one more in which spending will grow unchecked, wasteful programs will continue without oversight and tax dollars will go to waste. That means more debt for our grandchildren and a further drag on U.S. economic growth.
America is the land of prosperity. But Congress is making it harder and harder to prosper, and thats something that ought to worry us all. If it worries us more, maybe it will worry our elected representatives more, too.December 1, 2004