MILLER: Congress’ year-long sit-in

Avoiding conflict to ensure re-election stymies spending cuts

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While the rest of the public was enjoying Thanksgiving turkey and kicking off the start of the Christmas shopping season, the federal government put another $237 billion on its limitless credit card. That’s Washington’s version of austerity. Instead of doing something about the runaway deficits, Capitol Hill is doing everything it can to avoid conflict.

A bipartisan group of congressional appropriators met Thursday to negotiate differences over the nine appropriations bills remaining for 2012. These will be funded under the levels set by the Budget Control Act (BCA), otherwise known as the debt-ceiling deal. That law allows President Obama to borrow $2.1 trillion in return for “cuts” amounting to less than one day’s spending.

Republicans could have gone further, explained Heritage Foundation senior fellow Patrick Louis Knudsen. “The BCA spending levels were a ceiling, not a floor, and they could spend less than that,” he said. “Because the supercommittee failed, the only people in town who can cut spending are the appropriators, but they won’t do it.”

The three appropriations bills that have so far been enacted were in line with the Senate levels and $5.2 billion above the House budget. “House Republicans should demand sticking to the House budget resolution - the only real budget with any claim to legitimacy - which would have been a real cut of $31 billion,” said Mr. Knudsen. “But they are taking the path of least resistance.”

The debt deal also left room for gimmicks that could push spending back up to last year’s bloated levels. It allows adding unlimited emergency spending and up to $11 billion for old disasters like hurricanes Irene and Katrina. A GOP aide familiar with the current negotiations said, “some disaster funding is in the final FY12 package” but it would be less than the full amount allowed.

At least House Republicans have brought some regular order back to the appropriations process. After years of governing through omnibus spending bills and continuing resolutions, they passed 11 of the 12 appropriations bills out of committee and six out of the House.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, Kentucky Republican, told the conferees on Thursday, “I believe we’ve successfully laid the groundwork for a more complete and open appropriations process next year.” Ending the late-night passage of monster spending bills so frequent under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, is a huge improvement.

Still, the best case scenario is that 2012’s outlays will be flat. That would be a baby step in the right direction, but we need great leaps to avoid falling into the debilitating debt trap that has ensnared Europe. That means members of Congress need to do more than just occupy their seats, hoping they can coast their way into re-election.

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