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How the Congress is Supposed to Work

October 5, 2015

The House and Senate authorize programs and policies like economic Sanctions on Iran or the construction of a Galveston Bay storm surge protection system.   Once programs are authorized, then the Appropriations committees start their work, providing the actual funding for those programs that have already been authorized.   Any member of the House may object to funding for any programs that have not been previously authorized by an authorizing committee.

Table of FY 2016 Appropriations Bills Status as of October 1, 2015Each year Congress is supposed to pass 12 appropriation bills to fund the government.  Under the Constitution these must start in the House.  So far this session the House passed six out of thirteen appropriation bills.  To date; of the six House-passed appropriation bills, none  have been passed by the Senate and none have been sent to the President. 

This record makes it clear why the Congress has been using Continuing Resolutions (CRs) to keep the government from shutting down.  The Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader just weren’t doing their jobs!  What we’re seeing is management by crisis and the House and Senate Republican leadership not doing what they promised us.

This raises another important point.  The Constitution doesn’t say that 60 votes are needed to pass bills.  The only measures that require more than a simple majority are treaties and Presidential veto-overrides.  So why is it that the Senate, under Republican leadership, has been unable to move legislation? 

Under the Senate rules they have set for themselves, if 41 Senators oppose shutting off debate then the minority can keep a bill from being voted on (e.g., filibustering it).  In recent years the Senate has taken to holding votes to cut off debate before considering the measures on their merits.  If the motion to cut off debate receives less than 60 votes then the bill is not considered – it’s taken off the table (the motion to disapprove the Iran nuclear deal and the defunding of Planned Parenthood being just two examples).  So in practice, it becomes not 51 votes needed to pass a bill, but 60.  If the Republicans vote in-block for a measure, they only have 54 votes. Therefore, in order to be able to move legislation forward they must have six Democrats join them.

Enter the use of CRs.  Because the minority party in the Senate has been successful in blocking funding measures, the only way to stop a government shutdown – which is feared by many Republicans -- is to pass continuing resolutions where agencies are given funding for short periods of time.

When Harry Reid (D-NV) was Senate Majority Leader, he deployed the “nuclear option” which suspended the Senate rules and required only 51 votes to approve Presidential nominations.  Perhaps what is needed is for the Republicans in the Senate to impose the same rule for appropriations bills.  Doing so could allow better planning and appropriate funding for government agencies.  It would also remove the cover -- for the President's actions -- that the Senate's inaction has been providing for the last seven years!

Bill, John and Mark


October 2: The Hill: Obama Ultimatum: No more short-term spending bills
President Obama vowed Friday that he would not sign another short-term funding measure, pushing lawmakers to craft a long-term budget agreement.  Speaking to the press two days after signing a two-month continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down, Obama said that would be the last he is willing to tolerate. Government funding is now set to expire Dec. 11 after the latest agreement.  “I want to be very clear, I will not sign another shortsighted spending bill like the one Congress sent me this week,” he said. “We purchased ourselves 10 additional weeks. We need to use them effectively.”
















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