President Donald Trump seemed to cast down a gauntlet in the latest iteration of Congressional debate over government spending. In a recent press conference, he vowed that he “would have no problem doing a shutdown” of the federal government if more funding is not set aside for his proposal to construct a wall along the United States’ southern border.
The President’s commentary prompted a swift warning from both Republican leaders in Congress, but what is most interesting about the jumble is not being reported on with any serious interest. While press coverage was primarily focused on the commentary rolling out of the White House, the fact that both chambers of Congress passed spending bills before the looming pressure of a shutdown deadline ought to have been just as noteworthy.
It should be the talk of the town that Congress actually passed spending bills without resorting to brinkmanship or members scrambling to read over 2,000 pages of bill text in less than a week. With the bitterness of the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill still fresh in the minds of everyone concerned by Congress’s reckless abandon concerning spending and debt, this news provides a welcome and necessary pretext for cautious optimism.
So shocking is the news that POLITICO’s Burgess Everett observed that the Senate’s plan for “avoiding a massive catch-all package that President Donald Trump might reject” is not something out of The Onion. And indeed, when Onion headlines such as “Nation Demands Tax Dollars Only Be Wasted On Stuff That’s Awesome” hew a little too close to reality in the age of cutting taxes without changing spending levels, any news out of Congress that challenges this perception is a positive development.
However, one element that ought to temper the praise received by Congressional leaders for their stewardship of recent appropriations bills is the fact that individual members are still not being given enough input in the process.
R Street Institute Senior Fellow James Wallner observes that while “Senate appears to have finally found its lawmaking legs,” its approach forces Senators to “negotiate with [Senate] leadership and bill managers to get a chance to offer their amendments” through a parliamentary tactic known as offering “blocker amendments.” In short, the Senate Majority Leader is able to thwart out-of-step members by using Senate rules to scuttle unwanted amendments.
In a process that suffers greatly from its members being hamstrung, constituents ultimately lose out when their member is on the receiving end of such legislative tactics.
The concern for restoring fiscal order in the appropriations process is also lost when attention is primarily geared toward the intentions of President Trump or the fact that Congress is acting more responsibly than it has with past spending measures—a low bar to say the least. While attempting to avoid a massive catch-all bill is commendable, the Senate’s decision to continue funding wasteful government programs and persistent unwillingness to open up the process, consequently means the outcome will remain the same. Bloat and overspending.
The fact that Congress is taking an interest in legislating before deadlines and crises arise ought to be acknowledged favorably, but do not get starstruck when there is still a great deal of work ahead in making responsibility the chief virtue of the appropriations process.