- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

Normally, the holiday lull lingers sweetly through January in this city, giving those who make a living in public policy a few extra weeks to break New Year's resolutions before an outrageous workload becomes a convenient excuse to reprise old habits. Yet, this year's winter respite is about to end abruptly, like a huge icicle snapping off the Capitol, when Congress comes crashing back in to town in early January.
Not only will the Senate welcome a new majority leader, Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, but lawmakers also plan to complete about a year of appropriations work in three weeks in January. It's a congressional spending sprint, featuring the House and Senate racing to atone for a year of budgetary procrastination. This dash to finish business, however, also serves as a useful model for Congress getting its money bills done on time in 2003.
With only two of the 13 fiscal 2003 spending bills done and more than a quarter of the fiscal year over Congress reconvenes Jan. 6, attempting to end an ugly episode in the appropriations process. It's the kind of fiscal-policy meltdown not seen around this town since the days of the government shutdown in 1995-96. There's so much recrimination and finger-pointing that the real source of the problem is as muddy as the Potomac River. "Doing better next year" is Washington's collective New Year's resolution.
Why has finishing the appropriations process become so difficult in the last several years? Several factors deserve note.
The increasing occurrence of divided government is one reason. Different parties controlled the White House and Congress about 81 percent of the time since the Nixon administration a sharp contrast to the first half of the 20th century, when voters chose divided government only 18 percent of the time. Diverging spending priorities between a White House of one party and a Congress of the other contribute to partisan strife.
Rising partisanship inside Congress is another factor. Bickering in general has grown in the House and Senate, but the appropriations committees, particularly in the House, have changed dramatically over the past two decades.
Transformed from the chummy group of the 1950s, the appropriations process is now a hotbed of partisanship. Funding a lawmaker's spending initiatives irrespective of party was the norm in the past. In 1963, political scientist Richard Fenno in his classic book, "The Power of the Purse," quotes then-House Majority Leader Carl Albert, Oklahoma Democrat, as saying, "Appropriators are 'a clan.' They are more of a club than the Senate. They get what they want from each other."
Congressional insiders, however, argue times have changed. House Democratic appropriators now moving into their ninth year in the minority have increasingly used the committee as a platform to highlight partisan differences in federal spending priorities. The increasingly strident atmosphere has made it difficult to reach consensus and keep the trains running on time and it's getting worse.
"The Appropriations Committee is now running the Democratic Party in the House," one senior Hill aide said. The political overlay on many major spending decisions is thick, making maneuvering toward compromise nearly impossible and grinding the process to a halt.
Nevertheless, next month's January plan contains some principles that appropriations pros say could lead Congress to move with more alacrity. First, establishing an overall process with deadlines is critical. Lawmakers know they have the month of January to complete unfinished business before the fiscal 2004 process gets into full swing. Congress may even have to face supplemental spending requests for emergencies, such as a war in Iraq.
Second, securing bicameral agreement on the process is essential. Senate and House Appropriations Chairmen Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, and Bill Young, Florida Republican, reached an understanding last month about how to conclude the process when Congress returns, including, deadlines and overall spending amounts.
Finally, cooperation with the White House is crucial. Chairmen Stevens and Young also met with President Bush last month and agreed overall spending in this final phase would comport with the $750.5 billion level requested by the administration.
Why not apply these same principles to complete next year's spending bills on time? Republican congressional leaders, controlling both chambers, are well positioned to lay out a similar, rational timetable with deadlines, reach early bicameral agreement and work with the administration to achieve a consensus set of numbers for next year's spending dbate.
Lawmaking is not a shibboleth for speed or efficiency. However, in the last several years, the road to finishing spending bills has become especially bumpy. But a hard-nosed plan, insisting that congressional spending stick to a timetable as well as budgetary limits, will help legislators do their part to change the tone in Washington and buoy the respect they receive from voters. Now there's a holiday gift every member of Congress would love.

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