Process, Policy Both Critical to Governing


Several years ago Congress authorized an earmark of $223 million in tax dollars to build a bridge in Alaska from the mainland to a practically uninhabited island. The bridge funding caught national attention and public ire. It became the “bridge to nowhere” and the iconic symbol of government waste. It rekindled a campaign that may result in the demise of the earmarking process.

People all across the country wanted to know how Congress could commit millions of dollars to a local bridge project, let alone in a time when federal deficits were soaring and legitimate national needs were going unmet. Good question.

What most people were never told was that the bridge project was bad public policy, it was also the product of bad legislative procedures.

The bridge got funded because the appropriators in Congress, those members responsible for deciding whether a project is worthy of federal tax dollars, couldn’t stop it. Why? Because members of the Transportation Committee who authorize highway projects, had quietly inserted into the rules of the House, a provision which prohibited the appropriators from doing anything other than fully funding every project they authorized. The bridge got authorized and the Congress, under its own rules, had to fund it. It was a classic case of procedure trumping policy and a classic example of how process and procedures hamper good governance.

While all the media attention is focused on what Congress does, too little is focused on how it is done. Until Congress modernizes its procedures, public policy will continue to suffer.

The new members of Congress who voters are choosing in less than a month will arrive in Washington next January and immediately after they are sworn in, they will vote, according to the Constitution, on the rules that will govern the 112th Congress.

The only member of Congress currently trying to focus public attention on the rules is Republican Leader John Boehner, who recently spelled out key reforms in how the legislative branch operates. Boehner’s ideas didn’t get much attention, but they should have.

What gets the attention are helium filled rhetorical flourishes about cutting spending, balancing the budget and making the government live within its means.

That’s easier said than done when the congressional budget process, the system of authorizing and appropriating tax dollars, and the processes for oversight and accountability have completely broken down. They don’t work. Congress as an institution doesn’t work.

When the new freshmen members of Congress arrive here in January all pumped up on the political steroids of winning an election, they will discover they can’t do what they promised to do, not because the policy is wrong but because the procedures prevent them from enacting the policies.

Last year, Congress was supposed to pass 12 separate appropriation bills. None were passed in the Senate and only two in the House. None were enacted into law. In fact since the Budget Act was enacted in 1974, the individual appropriations bills have been passed separately only three times. This Congress, for the first time since the enactment of the Budget Act, didn’t even adopt a budget.

Another critical breakdown is in the congressional authorizing process. Authorizing committees that deal with the panorama of issues such as energy, environment, health, finance, science and transportation, are supposed to review federal programs, create new ones and reauthorize existing ones. However, they spend so much time pandering to the political winds whirling around such crises as corporate executive salaries or listening to the testimony of Big Bird, comedians, movie stars and social activists, true oversight does not occur and programs don’t get authorized. Into that vacuum ride the appropriators who do what they shouldn’t and authorize spending themselves. The irony is that this is partly the justification appropriators give for “earmarks” – a poor substitute for the oversight expected from authorizing committees.

This also results in Congress relinquishing authority to the Executive Branch, and specifically Federal agency lawyers and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has become by default the most powerful entity in the Federal Government. When appropriations bills are being enacted with nearly half the funding unauthorized, the unelected administrators have wide discretion.

Requiring all spending to be authorized first would mean that Congress would have to take responsibility for proactively reviewing and evaluating spending programs, leading to an informed discussion and tough choices about our national priorities and which among them we can afford to fund.

Congress can repair the system if the public understands the dimensions of the problem and demands change. Here are just some solutions, building on many of the ideas of Leader Boehner:

  • Biennial budgeting-passing budgets for two years would allow the authorizing committees in the off year to review programs and set priorities. Congress needs to provide more time for proper oversight and the enactment of authorization bills.
  • Create a Joint Committee on the Budget to conduct the first major overhaul of the budget process since its enactment 36 years ago.
  • Change the fiscal year to a calendar year to avoid lame duck spending decisions. The fiscal year deadline is routinely missed resulting in the Congress passing continuing appropriations bills usually with additional goodies added and leaving federal agencies and the states unable to understand what level of spending they will ultimately be given.
  • Enforce the prohibition on unauthorized appropriations. The anti-deficiency act, which was designed to control rates of spending and prohibit unauthorized spending should be updated to limit the ability of the agencies to spend excessively or reprogram funding from one purpose to another. In the absence of authorizing language the administration should have spending frozen at the current services level.
  • Change the rules to allow more participation in floor debates and greater transparency in what’s being considered.
  • Instill a greater atmosphere of civility and cooperation that in turn will rebuild public trust in the institution of Congress.
  • Review the committee structure and their jurisdictions to avoid duplication and restore the committees to their rightful place as the workhorses of the congressional process.
  • Consider the creation of a joint committee to examine the current structure of congress and whether fundamental restructuring is in order.

Reform will be difficult to accomplish and properly should be done with both Houses in agreement. The last time the House considered the creation of a Joint Committee on the Budget, the House Chairman of the Budget Committee led the fight against it, arguing that his Committee could do it themselves. In our bicameral legislative branch the process will never be completely corrected without both Houses acting together.

Bob Michel said it two years ago and it bears repeating: “Congress needs reform. This venerable, great parliamentary institution of modern times is suffering from fatigue and old age. It is moving more slowly into the 21st Century than most other influences on American life, from cultural diversity to technology. And it is not serving that fundamental responsibility envisioned by the Founding Fathers to be a check in a system of checks and balances. Today, there are too many checks and not enough balance.”

There is no doubt Congress has limped into the 21st Century while the rest of the country has leaped. Our governmental systems need to be ahead of the times, not behind them.

Editor’s Note: Bill Pitts served for more than 27 years on Capitol Hill, first as a Page and cloakroom staff, followed by 17 years with House Republican Leader Bob Michel as his principal floor assistant, parliamentarian and legislative strategist. Pitts also served as Chief  of Staff of the Rules Committee under Chairman David Dreier. In the private sector, Pitts was a senior official with several communications companies, including Disney, and Notification Technologies.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson contributed to this article.

One thought on “Process, Policy Both Critical to Governing

  1. Billy

    typo–this should be deleted:
    Congress should have approved dozens of conference reports on bills agreed to by the House and Senate. Congress approved two.

Comments are closed.