by Donald Wolfensberger

Republicans are in a budget quagmire largely of their own making, said former House Appropriations chairman Robert Livingston (left) in a September 17 Director's Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. According to Livingston, GOP leaders made a mistake by swearing allegiance to unrealistic discretionary spending caps and by crafting fiscal 2000 spending bills with little or no Democratic backing. "This Congress probably lost the biggest battle when they least expected it," said Livingston, referring to the GOP's fiscal 2000 budget resolution (H Con Res 68). "If you can't get the bills through, you can't bargain with the president, and that's where they are now."

Livingston chided his former colleagues for resorting to budget "gimmicks" such as "emergency" designations for census and defense funding, as well as the so-called lockbox to capture savings from amendments that reduce spending.

Livingston's comments were echoed at a "Politics of the Appropriations Process" panel discussion held shortly after his presentation. The panel included Center director Lee Hamilton, who prior to coming to the Center had served in the House of Representatives for three decades. Hamilton noted that the House Appropriations Committee "is more powerful than ever" and that the authorization committees are weaker than ever. "That's why so much authorizing work is being done on appropriations bills," he said. "The authorizers can't get their work done for one reason or another."

Hamilton suggested that maybe the time had come to abolish the authorizing committees since they are becoming irrelevant. Alternatively, he said, "you could abolish the appropriations committees and turn their responsibilities over to the authorizing committees," as was done for a couple of decades in the last century.

Over-politicization of the Appropriations Committee

Another of the panelists, Vic Fazio, also a former congressional representative, felt that the problem with the current budget process was the result of the the House Appropriations Committee becoming overly politicized in the past couple of decades. (Fazio based his opinions on his experience of chairing the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee for seven of his ten terms in the House, which had earned him the nickname "the mayor of Capitol Hill.")

For today's Republican-controlled House, the Appropriations Committee has become a "reelection tool," Fazio explained. Republican leaders appoint freshman Republican members from marginal districts to Appropriations, and regularly give Republican members special projects through Appropriations, to bolster their reelection prospects.

The upshot of all this is much more "micro-management" of committee decisions by the Republican leadership than was ever the case under the Democrats, claimed Fazio. This in turn has led to party line voting on many issues in committee compared to mostly bipartisan, voice votes in the past.

Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin concurred, saying said that, while Speaker Dennis Hastert is giving other committees much more room to steer their own course than did Newt Gingrich, the Appropriations Committee has been the exception. Republican party membership, she added, is divided over how to handle the current crisis over the tight spending caps imposed by the 1997 balanced budget agreement. With so few bills in law, and the new fiscal year rapidly approaching, Republicans are finding themselves back where they were last year when they had to bundle eight of the 13 appropriations measures into a single omnibus bill that nearly everyone agreed was outrageous, and vowed never to repeat, Eilperin said.

Democrats Also Partly to Blame

A dissenting view was offered by Kristi Craig, who serves as legislative director to Appropriations Committee member Anne M. Northup (R-Ky). Craig felt that Democrats, too, deserved at least some of the blame for the current budget-making mess. According to Craig, Democrats are much more united in their opposition to Republican efforts than Republicans are united in their support for the actions of the Appropriations Committee and the Republican leadership. Because it is difficult to forge a partisan consensus in this atmosphere and with such a thin majority, progress has been slow in processing the 13 regular appropriations bills through the Congress.

According to political scientist Roderick Kiewiet, the current trends in appropriations decision making have been apparent for several decades. Kiewiet has been studying the role of congressional parties in appropriations decisions from Truman to Clinton, and his findings thus far indicate that party control and leadership have greater impact on amounts appropriated than does a member's individual predisposition (known as "preference theory").