- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Fiscal conservatives in Congress fear the Senate’s failure to get a handle on appropriation bills will lead to a pork-barrel spending spree this fall, undermining repeated promises for fiscal reform.

The Senate left for summer recess after completing one of 12 spending bills needed to keep government agencies operating next year, all but assuring the need for an omnibus package, which are typically laden with pet projects never discussed or voted on.

“When you have senators … who have traditionally used these bills to bring home more than their fair share of the bacon — and are used to doing that — without some action by the Senate leadership, this omnibus is sure to be loaded,” said Tom Schatz, executive director of Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, described that scenario as “our worst nightmare” for the more than 90 House members of the Republican Study Committee, the fiscal conservative block bent on controlling spending.

“If for some reason, we can’t take this in the regular order, meaning we review each bill individually, House conservatives would ask for a continuing resolution as opposed to an omnibus which are usually a smorgasbord-buffet of pork,” Mr. Hensarling said.

Appropriations bills regulate how government agencies spend their money within the federal budget and are supposed to be completed by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The House and Senate each pass their own versions, then hammer out the differences and pass 12 compromise bills.

House members, having promised to reform the appropriations process and pushing harder after Hurricane Katrina forced new spending provisions, passed 10 of 12 bills before leaving town.

But the Senate often lags behind the House pace, and this year is no different.

As a result, Congress is forced to pass a voluminous appropriations bill called an omnibus, with thousands of pages for lawmakers to review. That allows members to anonymously slip in spending provisions for pet projects, called earmarks or pork, without discussion or votes, and that leads to abuse, Mr. Hensarling said.

Last year, Congress passed every appropriations bill individually, but in 2004, an election year, Congress missed its deadlines and had to roll nine bills into a $388 billion omnibus measure. Citizens Against Government Waste said Congress included $27.3 billion in earmark spending that year.

Congress is unlikely to pass all 12 individual bills this year because, with midterm congressional elections coming in November, no business will be done in October. That means the Senate would have to pass 11 bills, the House pass two bills and the chambers hammer out a compromise on all 12 bills — in the 15 work days scheduled for September.

“That will likely be reduced to 12 days since the Senate rarely votes or does any serious work on Mondays and Fridays,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

Lawmakers could return after the election in a “lame-duck” session, but even then, progress is not likely.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, will be a lame duck, retiring ahead of a possible 2008 presidential bid, with little influence over the standing members.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican and a former majority leader, thinks a “conscious decision was made along the lines to not get [appropriations bills] done before the election.”

Mr. Lott said a “clean” continuing resolution without any extraneous provisions would be offered in September followed by an omnibus, “with at least seven or eight, maybe even nine” appropriations bills.

As of last week, the Senate had passed only the Homeland Security spending bill.

Senate Democrats tried to blame Republicans for the scheduling mess.

“The Senate hasn’t acted on the Defense appropriations bill even though the president’s military leaders say they will need an emergency supplemental” bill, Mr. Reid said.

However, when Mr. Frist suggested that the Senate spend seven hours to get the bill done, Mr. Reid said it was too big. He blamed Mr. Frist for waiting until the last minute to work on the bill, saying, “The majority leader sets the schedule, not us.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran said the defense bill “will test how well we handle the other appropriations bills going into the future”

The Mississippi Republican said as much as he would have liked to handle Defense and the other bills individually, he expects that a package of appropriations bills will be rolled into one big “omnibus bill” at the end of the year.

That would be a disaster for opponents of earmarks and pork-barrel spending.

“The worst nightmare for someone trying to reform the earmark process is a Christmas Eve Omnibus while everyone is trying to get out of town,” Mr. Hensarling said.

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