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Republicans Aim to Fix Budget Process

GOP to upend spending process,” blares a Politico headline.

House Republicans seem intent on blowing up the staid appropriations process when they take power in January — potentially upending the old bulls in both parties who have spent decades building their power over the federal budget.

The plans include slicing and dicing appropriations bills into dozens of smaller, bite-size pieces — making it easier to kill or slash unpopular agencies. Other proposals include statutory spending caps, weekly votes on spending cuts and other reforms to ensure spending bills aren’t sneakily passed under special rules.

On some level, their plans may create a sense of organized chaos on the House floor — picture dozens of votes on dozens of federal program cuts and likely gridlock on spending bills. And don’t forget that a lot of these efforts will die with a Democratic-led Senate and a Democrat in the White House.

But the intent is to force debate as much as to actually legislate — and make Old Guard Republicans and Democrats uncomfortable with a new way of thinking about the size and scope of government.

[...]

Perhaps the most dramatic change is Boehner’s planned Appropriations Committee overhaul to require funding on a department-by-department basis, first reported by POLITICO on Wednesday. His proposal would subdivide the dozen current appropriations bills so that funding for each major federal agency would require a separate House vote.

On the surface, this is a boatload of awesome.  Bills people could conceivably read before voting on them!  Separating legislation into relevant clusters, rather than attaching poison pills or unrelated must-pass items!  What’s not to like?

Well . . .

“John should talk with the professional appropriators about the complexities, rather than talk off the top of his head. His plans would take a huge amount of the House’s time, but what would it accomplish?” said a dubious former House Republican member of the Appropriations Committee who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A former Democratic appropriator also was skeptical about describing prospective changes at that committee, which has a strong tradition of producing 12 bills every year from 12 subcommittees run by 12 very powerful Appropriations “cardinals.”

“On the practical side, it has to be nuts. Given the difficulty in passing the current bills, adding these changes would be a dream world. … There could be a revolt by members, who will want to get home and campaign.”

My instinctive two word reply to that begins with F and ends with ‘em.

The Iron Chancellor told us long ago that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”  There’s a need for give and take that’s not pretty.  And that’s especially true when you have 435 Representatives with as many constituencies to please.  There’s going to need to be a little logrolling to grease the skids.

Having to pass every single line item would obviously be unreasonable.  But breaking it down so that each of the 15 Cabinet Department budgets are voted on separately?  That doesn’t offhand strike me as silly.  It might make more sense to do things functionally (say, all of the intelligence budgets in one bill) instead, but that’s not a given and it’s a quibble in any case.

As to “What would it accomplish?” . . . who knows?  Maybe it’ll just amount to grandstanding and go away.  But it strikes me as more apt to produce sane spending policies than the current omnibus system.   How could it not?

And, frankly, I’m rather tired of czars, cardinals, and the like.  Budgeting isn’t easy but it’s not rocket science, either.

Further, this is reverses the recent Republican trend on Ronald Reagan.  Usually, they invoke his name to justify something that he either directly opposed, paid lip service to while doing just the opposite, or made sense only in the context of three decades ago.  Here, they’re not mentioning Reagan at all but picking up a baton that he dropped.  I recall a State of the Union Address where he piled up the gigantic budget bill and made fun of it, vowing that he wouldn’t do that again.

Others commenting:  Bruce McQuain, Ed Morrissey, and Sister Toldjah

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    Hahahahaha.
     
    Oh, I’m sorry, were we supposed to take any of that seriously?  Boehner wants reform.  The GOP wants reform.  Of course they do.
     
    A dozen bills becomes hundreds of bills.  The appropriation process consumes the entire legislative agenda.  Gridlock.
     
    The purpose is political not practical.  See, this way, while the Republicans keep up their usual borrow-and-spend-and-lie strategy, they can separate out a few small-bore projects — let’s just guess it’s anything to do with art or non-defense research — and use their house media organs to hammer irrelevancies as though they were budget-busters.
     
    Plus, this way they can more personally attack, say, Hillary Clinton’s State Department and politicize every last dollar of the budget while distracting the dim-witted attention of the tea partiers from the fact that precisely nothing is being accomplished.
     
    Reform.  Uh huh.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    Oh, it’s possible that they’ll just screw this up. Indeed, it’s a fair bet given the recent track record.
    But, on the merits of the proposal, it actually makes sense to budget in meaningful chunks rather than in an omnibus package.  Right now, one can justify any Yes or No vote based on a single objectionable item, anywhere.  It becomes somewhat harder — although, granted, not impossible — to do that with rational bills.

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  3. Mithras says:

    Live by the gimmick, die by the gimmick.  Lacking any sensible substantive policy goals, the GOP has to resort to this flashy procedural “reform”. I’m hopeful they try this so we can see it blow up in their faces.

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  4. legion says:

    Track record? James, I know you are not this naive… the incoming crowd of Republicans have PROMISED that this is what they will do. McConnell, et al have stated, without shame or reservation, that they will hold the entire legislative process of government hostage until and unless they get paid (in the form of tax breaks for the wealthy – themselves & their main donors). They <i>campaigned</i> on promises to turn Congress into a chamber of pure, naked extortion, with no pretense of the responsible tending of the US economy whatsoever. The GOP is actively trying to destroy this country, purely so they can get a bit more money. There is no higher purpose; some pundits on Fox try to claim such, but even the politicians themselves are no longer really even trying to lie anymore. This is purely treasonous evil; no more, no less.

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  5. PD Shaw says:

    Many states have constitutional provisions limiting the scope of subject matter for single bills, increasing read time before voting, making log-rolling more difficult or otherwise making the process more transparent and orderly.  Many of this provisions were passed in response to perceived problems in the federal system.
     
    For example, the Cornhusker kickback would probably have been unconstitutional in many states.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    I’ve had an idea for a while now that I think is genius, but have never seen it anyway else so it’s probably on the other end of that spectrum.  Anyway, here goes: there is no size limit on any bill, but every line must have at least one and no more than three legislators as sponsors. These sponsors could be different all throughout the bill, in fact, that would be expected.  But it would eliminate the possibility of a pol saying ‘the bill was too complex, I can’t be responsible for all of it’.  So the inevitable tax exemption to ‘farmers’ ‘breeding’ quarterhorses, well, it wouldn’t be simply part of some megabill. That specific clause would have a specific name attached to it and if no one was willing – boom, it’s out.
     
    Any thoughts.

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  7. michael reynolds says:

    Oh, it’s possible that they’ll just screw this up.

     
    They don’t intend anything else.  They intend this to be a purely political tool for bashing liberals and providing distraction.
     
    James, the GOP has no goals aside from attacking Obama and servicing their clients.  You need to open your eyes to the truth:  your party stands for nothing.  They believe in nothing.  They intend to accomplish nothing.

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  8. mantis says:

    But, on the merits of the proposal, it actually makes sense to budget in meaningful chunks rather than in an omnibus package.
     
    Until you remember it’s Congress you’re talking about.

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  9. Steve Plunk says:

    I suppose a wait and see attitude is too much to ask of the critics.  Please, go ahead and judge this now rather than see if it works.
     
    This is a good idea and I expect more good ideas to come later.  The old system has failed the American people so something new must be tried.  Those former congressmen are probably now lobbyists so it’s no wonder they’re torqued, end of the gravy train.
     
    Health care legislation should have been done this way.  Small bills that could be judged for effectiveness and adjusted appropriately.  Instead we got comprehensive mush that we can’t yet figure out let alone evaluate.

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  10. sam says:

     
    Crikey, won’t all this cause a whole boatload of, you know, UNCERTAINTY!?  Gaack —

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  11. michael reynolds says:

    Plunk:
     
    Like asking me to wait and see whether a burglar will use his crowbar for good or evil, or whether a drunk driver will actually turn out to reliable.  Short answer:  no.
     
    There is no evidence — none — that the GOP intends anything other than attacking Obama, funneling money to the rich and pacifying the wingnuts.

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  12. john personna says:

    I have no problem taking this at face value, and at face value it seems like a good enough strategy to try.  Go ahead, tear it up.
     
    I had the same attitude about the launch of the deficit commission, and it proved better than (in that case conservative) critics expected.
     
    Of course, like the commission, the first step is not the journey.

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  13. john personna says:

    (I’m pretty sure I was told not to expect a serious plan from the deficit commission, because Obama was a big socialist.)

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  14. MarkedMan says:

    Steve Plunk says:
    I suppose a wait and see attitude is too much to ask of the critics.  Please, go ahead and judge this now rather than see if it works.
    But we’ve seen this before. Lucy Boehner always pulls the football away.  Asking Charlie Brown the Public to give them one more chance is, well, ridiculous. Boehner said it, Dick Armey said it before him – their number one priority is to defeat the Democrats.

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  15. MarkedMan says:

    Well, I guess I shouldn’t have tried the editing tools. “Lucy” and  “Charlie Brown” should have been strike-out.

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  16. TG Chicago says:

    This is clearly a gimmick meant to distract.  We all know that if you want to go after federal spending, you have to go after Medicare, Social Security, and Defense.
     
    Republicans, of course, don’t want to do that.  But the Tea Partiers will need to see proof that they’re doing something.
     
    So this is a way for them to “do something” even though it will amount to nothing.  They’ll attempt to defund NPR or the NEA or whatever, those meaningless battles will get all the headlines, and the Tea Party will be satisfied that Republicans are doing what they were elected to do.
     
    If Republicans were serious about cutting spending, they would release a plan along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles commission.  Or rally around the Paul Ryan roadmap.  But they’re not serious, so they don’t.  They do this instead.
     
    I’m surprised that James Joyner is actually applauding this.  It’s transparent gimmickry.  I can already see the Fox News graphics about the Republicans battling to end some “wasteful liberal program” that costs taxpayers a nickel per year.  It’ll keep the Tea Party quiet and allow the GOP to stick with their SOP: claim to be fiscally responsible while acting fiscally irresponsible.

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  17. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago

    This is clearly a gimmick meant to distract.  We all know that if you want to go after federal spending, you have to go after Medicare, Social Security, and Defense.

    Fixing the process can be a step in the right direction.   I’m happy to get rid of the more absurd pork barrel projects, too, and this could help. But, yes, they’ll have to follow through with cuts to have major impact on the budget.

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  18. Davebo says:

    “I suppose a wait and see attitude is too much to ask of the critics.  Please, go ahead and judge this now rather than see if it works.”
     
    Of course!  We shouldn’t judge the GOP lawmakers by the federal debt they created while in total control.
     
    But I must ask Steve and James.  Can you swallow a broom handle?  Because you’ve certainly done it here.

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  19. ponce says:

    It can’t hurt to take the Republicans at their word at the start of this session.
     
    I think Americans across the political spectrum dislike members of Congress voting on bills they haven’t read.

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  20. EJ says:

    Politics of this move aside, I have always liked the single purpose clause in the VA constituion. It makes bills relatively short and clean. Special interest handouts are limited, and legistlators cant hide behind fake reaosns for supporting or opposing a bill.
     Similarly, it helps prevent attack adds of “candidate x voted against education” because he/she ojected to an omnibous bill that happened to have an education component making the political process better. This kind of thing does indeed make the spending process cleaner and if states can have similar systems I dont see why Congress can’t have something along these lines too.

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  21. Drew says:

    “My instinctive two word reply to that begins with F and ends with ‘em.”
     
     
    My man.  Notice the angst among the leftists.  Change is a bitch.

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  22. Steve Plunk says:

    Michael, That burglar and drunk driver both present risk to you.  Boehner’s plan does not so waiting for results before judging is prudent.  Now take health care reform and you can see something that actually carried risk so people were right to make educated judgment as to it’s effects and speak out.
     
    Davebo,  Obama and the Dem’s deficits dwarf Republican deficits by far.  Any move in the right direction should be welcome.

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  23. sam says:

    “Obama and the Dem’s deficits dwarf Republican deficits by far”
    Bullshit.
     

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  24. sam says:
  25. michael reynolds says:

    Plunk:
     
    Of course Boehner’s plan represents risk.  The risk that this latest time-wasting, distracting, idjit-bait gimmick will once again get in the way of making any kind of progress.
     
    Drew:
     
    It’s frustrating when the suckers don’t fall for one of the GOP’s ploys, eh?

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  26. ratufa says:

    On one hand, reforming the budgetary process sounds like something that should be done. On the other hand, given past behavior, this sounds more like a way to give the newly-elected Tea Party folks (some of whom are actually serious about cutting spending) something to keep them busy so they don’t go after stuff that voters really care about.. Expect lots of small, but well-publicized cuts of programs that sound wasteful (and maybe even are) , while the big problems get less attention.

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  27. Tano says:

    On the surface, this is a boatload of awesome.  Bills people could conceivably read before voting on them!
     
    Huh? Is it easier to read of phone book, or 26 smaller phonebooks, broken down alphabetically?
    In fact, given the need for introductory material, defining terms, and stuff like that, reading separate bills would be even more time consuming (hence less likely to be done) than reading one big bill.
     

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  28. Pete says:

    Reynolds, you really have a burr under your saddle regarding repubs. Did you get fleeced by Duke Cunningham out there in the land of “fruits and nuts?’

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  29. steve says:

    1) They still wont read the bills. Their staff read the bills. Don’t any of you people know any actual Congressperson? just talk with them. It gets pretty clear after a couple of minutes.
     
    2) This may work as a compromise between and omnibus bill and having a line item veto. It might actually work in Congress. Not sure how it would matter in the Senate. Just more bills to filibuster.
     
    3) Health care was better approached as a comprehensive issue. Smaller pieces let special interests dominate. You also needed to integrate some way to pay for reform while implementing a plan.
     
    Steve

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  30. An Interested Party says:

    “Reynolds, you really have a burr under your saddle regarding repubs.”
    No more so than the way many around here seem to hate Democrats and liberals…perhaps some of them were publicly humiliated by an evil lefty teacher at some point in their past…

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  31. michael reynolds says:

    Pete:
     
    Offer some evidence that Republicans are serious about anything other than tax cuts for rich people and servicing their wingnut clients?

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  32. Pete says:

    Michael, I know many republicans where I live and I know our rep fairly well. They understand the country’s fiscal problem and accept that we must make cuts in defense spending, fix social security and medicare. My business deals with rich republicans (and democrats) and when this type of conversation arises, they are surprisingly honest in accepting what they may have to give up to contribute. Now politicians are another matter and they likely don’t listen to us out here anyway as their bread is buttered by the lobbyists.
    I guess where I take issue with your “blanket” condemnation of republicans is that it seems more suited for the repub. politicians than many of us out here. And my dig about the Dukester is because Calif seems to have many republicans who are deserving of your disdain.

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  33. george says:

    There is no evidence — none — that the GOP intends anything other than attacking Obama, funneling money to the rich and pacifying the wingnuts.
     

    I agree.  Of course, the same is true for the Democratic Party every time there is a Republican Party.  Neither party is interested in anything than attacking the other party … something that everyone who isn’t partisan sees.  And why so many people don’t even bother voting.  They’re all about power, and nothing else, and there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two.
     
    /end rant

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  34. Tano says:

    “They’re all about power, and nothing else, and there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two.”
     
    What a load of utter nonsense. To take just 3 or 4 things that pop into ones head – healthcare reform. After being conscious for the past two years, how on earth can you claim that there is no difference between the two parties when it comes to health care? Dealing with the recesssion – shall we stimulate the economy, or do nothing? Shall we reform the financial sector through regulation or not? Global Warming – is it a problem or not. If so, what should be done about it? Immigration – do we reform the laws to allow for sufficient low-skilled workers and regularize those who are here now, or just put up a huge fence, send in the army, and kick all of the undocumented out?
     
    Seriously george, what planet do you live on whereby you can claim that there is not a dimes worth of difference between the parties.  This is the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a long time.

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  35. george says:

    Seriously george, what planet do you live on whereby you can claim that there is not a dimes worth of difference between the parties.  This is the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a long time.
     

    Okay, I’ll bite.  The health care proposal put out by the democrats is more or less the one put out by the republicans in the 90′s, and provides neither the benefits of public health or of private health – its the worst of two worlds.  Which is why even Clinton rejected it in the 90′s as making no difference in practice.

     

    Or lets look at Gitmo, Iraq and Afghanistan, drone missiles in Pakistan, the bail out of the banks and GM, the various powers in the Patriot Act … other than the rhetoric, what has really changed.  If you take the range of gov’ts in the world, can you really say that the difference between the democrats and repubs would even show up on that scale?   If that’s your standard of intelligence, I think I’m quite happy to be labelled as stupid, thanks.

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  36. michael reynolds says:

    George:
     
    Sorry, but you lose since your initial point was not that there is substantial overlap between the parties, but “not a dime’s worth of difference.”
     
    There is obviously substantial difference.  And those differences are centered on the desire of Democrats to do something useful and the GOP utter indifference to same.

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  37. george says:

    Okay, “not a dime’s worth of difference” is an exaggeration, but as the overlap tends to be on the major issues (war, health care, overseas involvement, individual rights to privacy, the budget) I’d argue that the difference is much smaller than partisans on either side admit. Its like the differences between the Catholics and the Protestants during the reformation – perhaps important to those who belonged to one or the other, but not really significant for those who belonged to neither (say Buddhists or atheists).

    And like the Christians in that time, both sides claim to be much holier than what is displayed by their actual actions. Don’t you find it at least a bit frustrating that Obama’s regime is continuing the same policies that the democrats railed against during Bush’s regime? Don’t you find it at least interesting how those policies have been sanitised?

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  38. michael reynolds says:

    George:

    I find a lot of what Obama does frustrating. I also find a lot of what the Democratic Party does frustrating. In a perfect world both parties would find a tall cliff and take one step too many.

    But there is nevertheless an important difference: the Democrats are actually trying to govern. Are they doing a great job of it? No. But they are trying. They are still in there slugging (okay, limply slapping) away and trying to do what they are elected to do: solve problems and run a government.

    The GOP isn’t trying to do anything but obstruct. And no, that’s not what the Dems do when the situation is reversed. The Democrats supported Bush on Afghanistan, Iraq, NCLB and other issues. The incoming Obama administration worked with the Bush admin on the initial responses to the meltdown.

    You may not like those policies, but Dems don’t just engage in obstruction. Republicans do. Example: your very point on health care. Yeah, the final Dem plan was pretty much like the old GOP plan. BUt despite this bend-over-backward effort at getting GOP votes, what did the GOP do? Opposed the plan they used to support because they didn’t give a damn about anything but obstruction.

    And let’s not forget social issues. The Democrats are still pro choice, pro gay rights, and generally more open to immigration. In fact the GOP now opposes the immigration plan put forward by Mr. Bush. Why? Because their only business is obstruction.

    Right now DEmocrats are actually trying to move toward a more balanced budget by raising some additional revenue from high-income folks. (By the way, I’m one of those, so it’s my ox being gored.) And the GOP response? Refuse to vote on anything, to play any positive role in running the government, until millionaires get tax breaks.

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  39. george says:

    Michael, I agree that for the last decade the democrats have been more willing to work together with the republicans than vice-versa … and for the most part they’re a bit more honest (both parties currently want big gov’t – the republicans in the military and morality issues, the democrats in social issues, both in medicare, security issues (no change under Obama), and the ‘war on drugs’). But at least the democrats are more open about that, while the republicans talk small gov’t while delivering large.

    But in terms of what’s actually passed, there just isn’t a lot of difference. And for the first two years the democrats could have forced a change if they’d wanted one … that they didn’t suggests that despite rhetoric to the contrary they really didn’t want a change.

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  40. michael reynolds says:

    . . . that they didn’t suggests that despite rhetoric to the contrary they really didn’t want a change.

    Or that they are weak and feckless. Which, I grant you, is not much better.

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  41. george says:

    Or might even be worse, if true … I hope its not.

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