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Using Appropriations Bills to Cut Spending Under “Continuing Resolutions”

Hands Pushing Away Money

The Constitution’s Appropriations Clause provides:  “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law….”  This text clearly requires the enactment of a “law” — which requires the cooperation of the House, Senate, and President — to spend federal money.  However, beyond that, the Constitution leaves to Congress how that appropriations process actually works.

The traditional method of appropriating funds was by passing separate “appropriations bills” to fund different sectors of government.  Sadly, Congress has all but abandoned that historic practice in favor of adopting “Continuing Resolutions” (CRs).  This change is one of the reasons that congressional spending has been and still is out of control.

First, here’s how it’s supposed to work — by using a process often referred to as “regular order.”  The President is supposed to submit a budget proposal for the entire government in April of each year.  Then, each of the 12 subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees is supposed to draft an appropriations bill covering the sector of the federal budget for which they are responsible.

The 12 appropriations bills Congress is supposed to address separately are:  Agriculture, Rural Development and FDA; Commerce, Justice, and Science; the Department of Defense; Energy and Water Development; Financial Services and General Government; Department of Homeland Security; Department of the Interior and Environment; Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education; the Legislative Branch; Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; Department of State and Foreign Operations; Department of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

At least in theory, each Senator and Representative then would have time to read each appropriations bill.  (Yes, we realize that they really don’t actually read the bills.)  Then, each appropriations bill is supposed to be separately debated on the floor of the House and Senate and then voted on separately.  All 12 bills are supposed to be passed and signed into law by October 1 — which is the first day of the government’s new fiscal year.  That system worked well for decades, but it has largely been abandoned by both parties.

In recent years, “regular order” never actually happens.  Only once has Congress actually done its appropriating work on time since 1996, and only four times since 1977.  To cover this failure, Congress has for decades passed CRs that include all government spending in one bill.  Sometimes a CR just kicks the can down the road for a few weeks or months, but they can completely substitute for appropriations bills, which then are never separately considered.  These CRs are massive, bloated “omnibus” bills that no one could possibly read, and in which Congressmen and Senators are able to hide endless pork barrel spending no one has time to notice.  Congressmen are forced to vote for many and sometimes all 12 spending bills as a block.

In a year where none of the Appropriations bills are passed, Congress is then faced with either voting for the CR, or being blamed for shutting down the government.  This has happened so often that there are rules in place which operate when there is a “shutdown,” which ensure that certain spending never stops.  However, the media hypes the claims about the horrible consequences of a shutdown made by big-spending Democrats, and the pressure builds to vote “YES” no matter what is in the bill.  Thus, “[t]he current annual appropriations system is … particularly disastrous for fiscal conservatives.  Lawmakers wary of shutdowns … inevitably reach rushed agreements that almost always raise government spending.  As a result, discretionary spending, and thus annual deficits and the national debt, continue to rise.”

The most recent CR was a December 2022 “omnibus” bill, passed with the support of Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, only days before the newly elected Republican majority took over the House when they could have stopped it.  This one bill brought the national debt to over $31 trillion. “This omnibus spending bill is a prime example of Washington at its absolute worst,” said Brandon Arnold, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.

Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) blasted “weak and compromised [Senate] Republicans.” “[T]he American people are getting a bad backroom deal that is a Christmas present only the special interests in Washington will love,” Good said.  “The omnibus bill pumps over $1.7 trillion out of American wallets, with $15 billion going directly into more than 7,200 pet projects for Congressmen known as earmarks.  In New York, there is $3 million allocated to fund an LGBTQ+ museum.  There is $3.6 million for the ‘Michelle Obama Trail.’”

Good noted that the omnibus included “massive funding [of] ‘antiracist’ initiatives, giving more to ‘green’ infrastructure … pouring millions of dollars into broken government agencies such as the FBI that have caved to extreme ideology, and giving more money to the abortion mill, Planned Parenthood.”

The bill was a massive 4,155 pages.  Infuriatingly, it included $410 million for border security in Middle Eastern Arab states Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Oman, while leaving our southern border wide open.

The CR was supported by 18 “Republican” Senators:  Roy Blunt (MO), John Boozman (AR), Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Susan Collins (ME), John Cornyn (TX), Tom Cotton (AR), Lindsey Graham (SC), Jim Inhofe (OK), Mitch McConnell (KY), Jerry Moran (KS), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Robert Portman (OH), Mitt Romney (UT), Mike Rounds (SD), Richard Shelby (AL), John Thune (SD), Roger Wicker (MS) and Todd Young (IN). 

“I never want to hear any of the Republicans who voted for this monstrosity pretend that they’re for fiscal sanity or border security ever again,” said Congressman Dan Bishop (R-NC).

In January 2023, Congressmen Good, Bishop, and 18 others battled for 15 historic rounds of voting, refusing to allow Kevin McCarthy to be elected as Speaker of the House – at least until he agreed to certain reforms.  One of those reforms was a promise to consider the 12 appropriations bills individually, to give representatives at least 72 hours to read them, and to allow more amendments from the floor.

It’s time to end the farce.  No more CRs. End the insanity.  Shut down the government, if you need to.  Before the nation goes careening off a cliff, we have one more chance this summer to see if the McCarthy promises are kept.  If not, our supposed “leaders” will again fail to do their job, using CRs to bankrupt us and future generations as well.

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