House trying to restore spending bill process

At issue are the 12 annual spending bills for federal agencies and programs

Follow the money.

Follow the money.

Lawmakers embarrassed by their inability to pass their annual spending bills the old-fashioned way are trying to get the broken budget process back on track.

After the partial government shutdown last fall and a take-it-or-leave-it vote in January on a massive, catchall appropriations bill, the GOP House and Democratic-led Senate are both pledging free and open debates on the $1 trillion portion of the federal budget that’s under Congress’ control each year.

First up is a bipartisan $71 billion measure funding the Veterans Affairs Department and construction projects on military bases. The measure hits the House floor on Wednesday and is sure to win.

Next comes legislation freezing Congress’ own budget and denying lawmakers a $2,800-a-year cost-of-living pay hike.

At issue are the 12 annual spending bills setting the operating budgets for federal agencies and programs. Congress used to spend weeks on end debating and amending the measures, working late nights hashing out the legislation.

But the process failed spectacularly last year. In March, six months late, lawmakers passed an omnibus 2013 spending bill that left many federal agencies on autopilot and then watched as automatic, across-the-board spending cuts slammed the Pentagon and domestic agencies alike.

Subsequent consideration of the round of fiscal 2014 bills collapsed as the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a common spending limit to govern the appropriations process. The Senate didn’t pass a single bill and House action cratered after spending bills with severe cuts didn’t have the votes to pass. An unrelated fight over money to implement the Affordable Care Act sparked the partial government shutdown.

Now, working from a common $1.014 trillion top-line figure for the 12 bills, the veteran lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations panels are vowing to fix the broken system.

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the House Appropriations Committee chairman, is taking a time-tested, conservative approach, scheduling noncontroversial bills like the VA measure first. The bill seeks to ease a backlog in registering veterans for VA health benefits and tries to pressure the VA to fix flaws in upgrades to its electronic health records system, which isn’t fully interoperable with the Pentagon’s.

In the Senate, the new chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is a formidable figure who has won a promise of several weeks of floor time this summer to try to revive the process in that chamber.

On Tuesday, Rogers released a $51 billion measure funding the departments of Commerce and Justice as well as NASA and other science programs. The measure awards small budget increases to the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, NASA and the National Science Foundation, using unspent funds from prior years and a credit from the Justice Department’s Crime Victims Fund to scrape together the money for the increases.

But it’s not clear how long the smooth sailing will last. Bills that fund implementation of the new health care law or new rules stemming from the big 2010 overhaul of financial regulations may prove controversial to pass. And the measure financing the Environmental Protection Agency is a magnet for GOP amendments to block new EPA rules. If past is prologue, those measures may bog down and have to be rolled together into a one big spending bill that wouldn’t advance until the postelection lame-duck session.

Still, the mood among members of the beleaguered House Appropriations Committee is cautiously optimistic.

“I hope that for a certain period here that we can get some adequate allocations and write our bills and give the institution and the country the benefit of carefully wrought appropriations bills on a reasonably cooperative basis,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a veteran of the Appropriations panel.

“That’s what we’re here for as appropriators,” he added, “and so I hope we’ll be able to do our job.”
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