Budget pressure mounts on Senate Appropriations Committee

US Capitol at dusk as seen from the eastern side.

US Capitol at dusk as seen from the eastern side. (Photo by Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s quiet in the U.S. Capitol these days, but the pressure is on one groups of lawmakers – the appropriators – among them Alaska’s two senators, Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich.

They have until Jan. 15 to complete a dozen spending bills. If they don’t, we could see another government shutdown, or, less drastically, a type of budget purgatory Congress has been resorting to what’s called a “Continuing Resolution.”

A seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee used to be quite a lofty perch.

The late Ted Stevens became one of the most powerful Alaskans to ever live by becoming chairman of that panel. It allowed him to send billions home in earmarks.

Now both Alaska senators are on the committee, but it hasn’t amounted to much. Congress has been too divided in recent years to let the appropriators do their work, and anyway it banned earmarks due to public outrage – outrage that was partially inspired by Alaska projects. Alaska Congressman Don Young says it’s been a blow to the state.

“They’re both on appropriations, but what can they do?” Young said. “They can’t really do … and without earmarks they don’t have the clout that we used to have. This is the reality of life. We are being totally ignored.”

Young says when Congress won’t exercise its full power of the purse, it’s ceding power to the executive branch.

Earmarking, or slipping special home-state projects into a spending bill, usually late in the process, did help lawmakers pass appropriation bills in years past, but critics said it wasn’t right that a few powerful lawmakers could direct money so specifically and with so little scrutiny.

Lisa Murkowski

Lisa Murkowski. Official photo.

Sen. Murkowski says the recent stalemate has been frustrating. She is the top-ranking Republican on the subcommittee that writes the spending bills for the Interior Department.

“But our bill hasn’t made it to the floor for consideration since I’ve been ranking member because we’re not moving those appropriations bills forward,” Murkowski said.

She hopes we’re now seeing a return to the normal process. Congress this month did finally pass a budget resolution, which is kind of the starting gun for appropriations.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work. The president submits a thick budget to Congress in February. It’s nonbinding — just a request really. In April, lawmakers are supposed to pass a “budget resolution” – a blueprint saying how much they want to spend and how they’ll pay for it. Then the appropriation committees can get going. Committee leaders divide the money pie among 12 subcommittees, each of which crafts a spending bill. When they’re all passed, they fund government for a year. But bitter divisions have derailed the process in recent years. Instead of detailed appropriations bills, lawmakers pass resolutions to just keep the money flowing, usually at the prior year’s level. A Government Accountability Office (or GAO) report says it’s a wasteful process: Agencies are paralyzed by uncertainty, then get all their money late in the year and are in a rush to use it.

Mark Begich

Mark Begich. Official photo.

Sen. Mark Begich says spending becomes a blunt instrument without appropriations, a process that gives him and Murkowski a chance to shape the bills to meet Alaskan needs.

“We were continuing programs, through these crazy things called continuing resolutions, that did not need to be funded anymore but we were funding them because that was format,” Begich said. “Now we can appropriate strategically and surgically remove programs that are no longer efficient, not necessary anymore and do the right kind of budget balancing that’s critical.”

So the members and staff of the appropriations committees are racing the clock. To move things faster, they’re likely to roll all the bills into a big package called the omnibus. If it’s not signed into law by Jan. 15, they’ll have to pass another continuing resolution.