When Democrats take over Congress next year, they will restructure the appropriations panels of both chambers, seeking to restore the alignment between the Senate and House subcommittees and ease a budgeting process that has failed for 12 years in a row to deliver spending bills on time.
Democrats said that the details on the changes had not been finalized, but confirmed that the aim was to bring the two chambers’ structures into alignment by adding two subcommittees on the House side.
“The objective is to have the subcommittees (in the two chambers) mirror each other,” said one senior Democratic Senate appropriations staffer. “That is the key.”
The staffer said that before a series of changes enacted by the Republican House leadership two years ago, the structure of the two chambers’ subcommittees had been “identical, except for some very minor technical differences.”
The last time Congress managed to complete all its spending bills before the start of the fiscal year was 1994, also the last year when both incoming appropriations committee chairmen Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, were leading their respective panels.
Aides said the two were determined to try to get the budgeting process back on track next year, though they acknowledged it would be challenging. With the fiscal year already a month old, Congress has passed only two of the required 12 appropriations bills and plans to adjourn this week after passing a long-term “continuing resolution” — essentially permission for the government to go on spending at current budget levels.
Democrats maintain that by eliminating two subcommittees on the House side, responsible for funding the legislative branch and the District of Columbia, and moving other elements of jurisdiction around among the remaining 10, Republicans made the complex job of reconciling the House and Senate versions of spending bills that much more complicated, because the two-chamber conferences doing the work had to involve lawmakers from as many as four different subcommittees.
“Those changes created some difficulties when [appropriations] bills were conferenced,” said Ronald Platt, a Washington Democratic veteran who chairs the federal government practice of the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, and follows appropriations matters.
A spokesman for the Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee denied that.
Jurisdictional difficulties were “not insurmountable … not a substantive problem,” spokesman John Scofield said.
Conservatives argued that doing away with two of the powerful appropriations subcommittee chairmen, known as “cardinals,” helped reduce earmarks and keep spending under control. Mr. Scofield said it was inefficient to have an entire subcommittee devoted to a small spending bill for the District of Columbia.
Mr. Platt said that Mr. Obey has the support of Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, for the changes.
“She and Obey have worked it out,” he said.
In the Senate, staffers said members of the committee would meet tomorrow with Mr. Byrd to thrash out the details of the changes there.
“Some restructuring will be on the table,” another Democratic aide said.