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Inside Washington – Irregular Order Redux

Republican leaders in Congress wanted to return to regular order after the recent election to demonstrate that with both Houses of Congress in Republican control, they could effectively govern. Regular order is when all 12 appropriations bills are passed and signed into law by the President before the end of the fiscal year.

This has not happened for a long time.  Instead, Congress has passed some of the easier appropriations bills and provided temporary extensions for the others referred to as continuing resolutions.  In some cases, the entire government has been funded by these temporary spending measures.  And, in the end, large spending bills have become vehicles for controversial legislative proposals.  More recently, the Republican leadership has been stymied by its own rank and file objecting to the increased spending limits.  When the Republican leadership cannot rely on its memberships to pass these bills, they must then turn to the Democrats to make up those votes – and that bargain leads to many of the more controversial riders to be stripped from the bill and additional Republicans deciding to vote against their own bill. Because of this scenario, regular order has been difficult to achieve. 

No Budget Agreement

The appropriations process is running on last year’s budget assumptions since Congress has been unable to pass another two-year budget.  Therefore, the two-year budget passed last year will be used without any updated projections or programs such as funds for Flint, Michigan or the Zika Virus unless the logjam breaks.  Without new budget projections, the appropriations committees are hesitating to complete their work since they are unsure if the current figures are accurate or whether their spending limits will be increased or possibly cut.  The budget fight is where the spending priorities

Legislating With Appropriations

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding out-of-date budget projections, the appropriations bills are loaded with special provisions, many of them controversial such as restricting the EPA’s power plant rule.  With the lack of movement of “authorizing” legislation over the past few Congresses, appropriations bills have become the best legislative vehicle left.  Thousands of amendments are filed to the 12 appropriations bills each year.  When these bills are not passed and signed into law by the President before the end of the fiscal year on October 1, Congress rushes to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels for a short period of time.  However, everyone gets another opportunity when Congress then relies on an end-of-the-year “omnibus appropriations” bill that contains many of those riders while many riders simply are stripped from the bill in order to garner enough votes for final passage.  However this irregular order consumes so much of Congress’ time and effort that other bills are starved of attention.  This irregular order has also changed the way legislation is being enacted that in many instances can have a profound impact on the country.  And, this period of time is when the government relations teams in Washington are on high alert to prevent harmful legislation from being inserted at the last moment into large spending bills.

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