WIPP Works in Washington – July 2018

A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action, Please

 Ann Sullivan,                 WIPP Chief Advocate

Some days I feel talked to death. The 24-hour news cycle, Twitter, Congressional hearings, roundtables, forums – you name it – everyone’s talking. But to quote an Elvis Presley song, “a little less conversation, a little more action, please.”

Congressional inaction didn’t start yesterday. The budget process has been broken for some time. In fact, Congress passed all 12 appropriations bills by the October 1st deadline (the beginning of the fiscal year) just four times in the last 40 years. However, from 2011 to 2016, not a single appropriations bill passed by itself. For the last 7 out of 10 years, Congress has failed to pass a budget. Finally, the last time the Congress passed all 12 of its appropriations bills was 1994.

The same goes for legislation. Historically, this session of Congress is on pace to pass the least amount of legislation in the last 50 years. Congress has passed 194 pieces of legislation signed into law during the first 18 months of the 115th session of Congress. Of those 194, 23 bills were symbolic or ceremonial. Roughly 1.7% of bills introduced this session of Congress have become law, compared to 4.5% of bills in the 105th session (under President Clinton), and 3.3% of bills in the 110th session (under President George W. Bush.)

No one knows better than Congressional Members that the system is broken – especially its fundamental budget responsibility. A little-known effort is commencing on Capitol Hill – the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform. This Committee, comprised of House and Senate Members of both parties, is tasked with recommendations to reset the way Congress budgets and appropriates the taxpayers’ money. Recently, the Committee asked Members of Congress to share recommendations and Speaker Paul Ryan testified that the Congress should do a biennial budget. Others suggested getting rid of the Budget Committee, indexing spending to a percentage of the gross national product and eliminating the debt ceiling vote by making it automatic. What struck me most listening to the hearing was the bipartisan interest in fixing the budget process.

Two former Senate Leaders, Tom Daschle (D) and Trent Lott (R), currently lead the Commission on Political Reform as part of their work at the Bipartisan Policy Center. They have shared three recommendations to address the gridlock:

  1. Move to a two-year budget cycle, allowing more time for Members to understand programs under their jurisdiction in-depth;
  2. Get rid of the Senate filibuster but make the majority 60 votes, not 51 votes;
  3. Have a minimum number of amendments that can be offered to legislation, thus encouraging Members to get involved in legislating.

Being an eternal optimist, I believe the Congress can fix the process. One small ray of hope is the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is moving its bills at a much faster clip than we have seen in many years. I anticipate the Joint Select Committee on Budget Reform will produce serious recommendations.

Changing the rules will lead to action. Members of Congress will get back to legislating and time will be spent considering serious issues that need resolution. Getting back to an action-oriented Congress would be the first step toward more action and less talk.

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