- - Monday, November 24, 2014


So long as they do not overplay their hand, Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate have been given a wonderful opportunity to significantly pare the federal budget and shape U.S. policy in the last two years of the Obama administration.

Because of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s intransigence and refusal to permit the Senate to adhere to its legislative responsibility over these past few years, the appropriations process has been virtually inert. Continuing resolutions took the place of the traditional process of passing singular appropriations bills to fund discretionary functions of government. Continuing resolutions meant that departments and agencies of government were running on autopilot without oversight or input by Congress. In essence, Congress abdicated its constitutional authority to the executive branch of government. Programs that legitimately deserved additional funding beyond previous years were left without sufficient attention to growth, while wasteful, fraudulent, redundant and unnecessary programs were not reduced or eliminated for lack of legislative process, commonly known as “regular order.”

To their great credit two years ago, Appropriations Committee Chairmen Hal Rogers, a Republican in the House, and Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat in the Senate, pushed against the continuing resolutions and began insisting on a greater degree of legislative input. They succeeded in passing omnibus packages that combined efforts of several Appropriations subcommittees. Although the net product was still a cumbersome process that ignored detailed analysis of individual programs that regular order would allow, they significantly improved on the nonproductive continuing resolution process.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he wants to return Congress to regular order. If he succeeds, he will restore Congress to its constitutional function of oversight and guidance of all the activities of the executive branch of government. Conservatives have balked at the use of appropriations tools, and for good reason, because they often think the process will be used only to increase the size of government. In fact, throughout the past decade of terrorism and war, whether under Republican or Democratic control, members of Congress did indeed neglect their obligation to oversee the public purse, and the federal budget grew exponentially. When I left Congress in 1999, the federal deficit was little over $5 trillion. Today, it is approaching $18 trillion. Unless changes are made, ever-growing demands on the budget make it appear that we will never restore the country to fiscal sanity.

That does not have to be the case. If the Republican majority of both Houses will pull together its divided interests and plan a cohesive strategy, it can use the appropriations process to challenge President Obama, pare down and eliminate wasteful and unnecessary programs and restore intelligent oversight to improve legitimate functions of government. However, the process won’t work with casual observation from 30,000 feet above the ground. Oversight takes time and thoughtful effort. The art of legislation is never easy and is often ugly. It takes hearings with members of both parties diving into the substance of separate issues and debating the legitimacy of various functions of government.

To effectively carry out their constitutional responsibilities, they need to be in Washington for full and regular workweeks so they understand the problems faced by the people they represent. Members need to attend hearings in subcommittees and call witnesses to testify from business, labor, government and every other facet of American life. They need to dissect the laws they have passed to understand the impact on the American people. They need to concentrate on their jobs rather than spending most of their time in politicking and fundraising. They need to attend more hearings and fewer press conferences. It’s hard and tedious work, but it’s incredibly necessary if we are to energize America for the good of all our people.

The results from the past election have given Republicans an opportunity to provide meaningful change. Mr. Obama is resisting such change with every tool at his disposal. He has frequently resorted to executive orders to enact policy. He does not have the constitutional authority, though, to spend a single dollar of taxpayers’ money if Congress does not vote affirmatively to authorize him to do so. Congress can eliminate offices, staffs and whole agencies. It can stop payment of wholesale functions of government. Members can deny funds for “czars,” their staffs and even their parking places, if only they pick their fights intelligently. They must be able to justify their actions to the American people and not portray themselves as obtuse or unreasonably political.

If Congress thoughtfully employs the appropriations process to restrict or eliminate the most egregious misallocation and wasteful spending of taxpayers’ dollars, it can restore American faith in government and return us to a time of respect for America’s role in the world.

 Bob Livingston is a former Republican member of the House of Representatives from Louisiana and was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee from 1995 to 1998.

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