Congress should be ashamed of habitually late spending bills

Congress is coming to a close with lawmakers rushing to complete duties that should have been done months ago. The symbol of Congress’ annual failure at its assigned task is called an omnibus spending bill.

Congressional rules call for the House to enact 12 spending bills that conform to a budget resolution passed earlier and send them to the Senate for that body’s approval. The bills fund the government’s operations, from fighting wars to cancer research, for the next fiscal year, and they are supposed to be on the president’s desk for his signature before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

This year, there are no spending bills because not one of the 12 has passed. And, for that matter, there is no budget resolution. The result is that come December, with time running out, the Congress packs all its unfinished work and much else, including thousands of earmarks, into a single massive spending bill, much of which has escaped the normal legislative oversight.

And it happens with annual regularity. To take three examples:

– Last year, Congress rolled six major spending bills — totaling $1.1 trillion and containing 5,500 earmarks — into one package and passed it as it was going out the door for Christmas recess, 2½ months after the start of the 2010 fiscal year.

– It was worse for fiscal 2009. Congress didn’t get around to passing the $410 billion measure, with 9,000 earmarks, until March of 2009, when the fiscal year was almost half over.
n For fiscal year 2008, Congress wrapped 11 of the 12 bills, with almost 10,000 earmarks, into a $555 billion package that President George W. Bush signed at his ranch the day after Christmas.

This goes on no matter who is in charge. Some years are better than others, but the last time all the appropriations bills were signed on time was 1994 (there were 13 then). The time before that was 1988.

Now the House has passed, by a scant six-vote margin, a $1.2 trillion bill to fund the federal agencies, including $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House bill has no earmarks, but an omnibus bill by Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye, a master of the practice, has plenty of them.

The Republicans are pledged to ban earmarks, but some senior Republicans are chafing at the restriction and arguing that the ban goes into effect next year. If the Senate can’t agree with the House by Dec. 18, when the Senate plans to leave for the year, it will have to pass a stopgap resolution, effectively punting the problem into next year. It wouldn’t be the first time for Congress.

Dale McFeatters is a colimnist with Scripps Howard News Service.


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