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Members of Congress have lost control over spending

Package deals over budgets mean that individual members find it hard to make a mark.

- August 26, 2020

Editors’ note: This article is part of “Rethinking Our Democracy,” a series on institutional reforms to Congress and the presidency, which is a joint initiative by the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago and Protect Democracy. All other articles within this series can be found here.

The Constitution affords Congress the “power of the purse”: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” In recent decades, the rise of all-encompassing omnibus spending bills and other changes to the legislative process have eroded Congress’s exercise of this authority, limiting the influence of Congress and individual lawmakers over the course of federal spending.

Here’s why the process has broken down — and what Congress might do to fix the system.

This is how Congress is supposed to deploy its power of the purse

Federal law requires the president to sign into law each of the 12 appropriations bills that allocate what’s known as “discretionary” federal spending before the start of the federal government’s fiscal year on Oct. 1. That way, everyone knows how much money Congress has allocated and for which federal programs, including the military, K-12 education and scientific research.

To meet the deadline in the past, administration budget officials would come before Congress to defend their spending requests, and congressional committees with authority to write spending bills would send each of the dozen spending bills to the full chamber for their consideration. Congress would then resolve bicameral differences before sending each bill to the president to sign or reject.

That process is now broken. Committee consideration of budget requests don’t always happen; party leaders largely drive the negotiation process. In fact, it’s been nearly a quarter-century since Congress and the president enacted each of the required spending bills on time. Instead, parts or all of the federal government have operated under short-term, temporary spending bills for an average of 143 days each year, putting at risk public programs and services on which Americans depend.

A broken process breeds brinkmanship

The breakdown in the appropriations process has reshaped the relationship between Congress and the executive branch. Now, all or nearly all of the individual appropriations bills are bundled together, raising the stakes of disagreement. When spending is packaged into a single large item rather than its individual components, inaction means shutting down the government rather than just leaving some parts unfunded.

Congress and the president are willing to tiptoe near or over the brink of a shutdown for different issues than before. In 1997, for example, President Bill Clinton threatened to veto any education spending bill that did not fund his proposal to create a voluntary national testing program for fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math. Many members of Congress from both parties opposed the plan and, despite its importance to Clinton, they were able to force a compromise without shutting down even part of the government.

But in recent years, when Congress has considered spending bills together in large packages, only high-profile, partisan issues have been worth threatening a shutdown. In 2013, 2015 and 2018, Congress threatened or carried out shutdowns over these kinds of salient issues important to one or both parties’ bases: the Affordable Care Act, funding for Planned Parenthood and a wall along the southwestern border, respectively.

Centralizing negotiations in leaders’ hands disempowers rank-and-file lawmakers

It is increasingly hard for members of Congress to use the appropriations process to achieve their legislative goals. In recent years, party leaders — often but not always working with pivotal committee chairs — have become the main players in negotiating these critical spending bills. Centralization undermines the ability of individual lawmakers to influence how the government spends money, even when it affects their states and districts.

Since 2017, leaders in both parties in the House have often bundled several bills together rather than bring them individually to the House floor for separate debates. Packaging bills makes it harder for lawmakers to know or challenge what’s in the bills. What’s more, House leaders then typically restrict lawmakers’ ability to offer amendments, allowing only those approved by the leadership-influenced House Rules Committee. As members feel like they have less legislative influence, they reallocate their staff resources to representational functions — like constituent services and public relations — which, in turn, makes it harder for them to push back against their own party leaders and the executive branch.

Every fiscal year, when leaders from both parties in both chambers construct the final, year-end omnibus spending package, it also provides a last chance for rank-and-file members to see their favored non-spending bills included and enacted. However, bills are included in the omnibus mega-bill through a centralized and somewhat opaque process, which can frustrate individual legislators.

Why do rank-and-file members go along with centralized legislating with these large, year-end spending bills? Procedural choices require trade-offs. The omnibus process can make individual members unhappy, but it does facilitate legislative achievements. As Jim Curry and Frances Lee have argued, party leaders are often the only ones willing to shoulder the blame for tough decisions taken in omnibus packages. Packaging of spending bills may make it more difficult for individual legislators to influence the content of bills, but it also increases the chances that Congress and the president can fund the government by the start of the fiscal year each October.

Congress could do things differently

Potential reforms would empower individual members of Congress in spending decisions. It would be easier for rank-and-file members to advance their legislative goals if Congress returned to its previous approach, with spending bills considered separately on the floor in both the House and Senate and members given more opportunity to amend bills freely.

The House Appropriations Committee, as Peter Hanson has documented, holds fewer meetings and markups than it used to. Hearings, which often feature high-ranking executive branch officials answering questions about their agencies’ funding requests, provide legislators with information about how federal programs are running. Markups allow members to debate spending priorities at a more granular level. A return of congressionally directed spending (referred to colloquially as “earmarks”) combined with anti-corruption measures could increase members’ investment in appropriations, giving them an opportunity to protect their constituents’ interests.

Members of Congress and the president alike are often tempted to frame disagreements over spending in partisan terms. But exercising the power of the purse effectively is a fundamental constitutional responsibility, regardless of who controls the legislative branch.

Molly Reynolds (@mollyereynolds) is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and author of “Exceptions to the Rule: The Politics of Filibuster Limitations in the U.S. Senate” (Brookings Institution Press, 2017).