In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute this past September, Representative John Boehner—now the next Speaker of the House—proposed breaking down appropriations bills in order to more effectively identify areas where federal spending could be cut. Boehner said that, especially in light of huge deficits, “each department and agency should justify itself each year to the full House and Senate, and be judged on its own.” Yesterday, Politico reported that Boehner and the House Republicans are now making good on this proposal, constructing a plan to consider the spending of each department separately. Such a plan, as Boehner maintained in his AEI address, would prevent members from having to “vote for big increases at the Commerce Department just because they support NASA,” for example.
There are plusses and minuses to the Boehner approach. Having to analyze spending of each department individually does raise the concern that the appropriations process may be slowed to a halt. No appropriations bill reached President Obama’s desk before the start of the fiscal year on October 1, and considering the departments separately would likely make the process of an appropriations bill even more drawn out. And compromise and appropriations do not tend to go hand-in-hand. The day after the midterm elections, AEI’s Norm Ornstein expressed doubt that the parties will easily find common ground on spending in the 112th Congress: “On the big questions, especially federal spending and taxing, confrontation will be the order of the day.”
Boehner and the Republicans support a system of considering spending “that places an emphasis on getting it right, and less emphasis on getting it done quickly,” and this is clearly a worthy goal. However, given the gridlock that often exists in the current appropriations process, they must try to implement their plan in a way that doesn’t completely halt spending. That may mean that rather than considering individual department spending in separate bills, bills could still be presented as omnibus legislation while, as Politico put it, “build[ing] procedural walls forcing lawmakers to consider the budgets for each department separately.”
Perhaps, as Ornstein argues, compromise in the federal spending process is a pipedream. But finding a plan that would reduce spending while still acknowledging the importance of timely resolution of budgets might find some support on both sides of the aisle, at least from fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats.