Failure of Appropriations Process Led to Shutdown

At a press conference held by Senate Democrats on October 2, Majority Leader Harry Reid asked reporters, "What right did they [Members of the House of Representatives] have to pick and choose what part of government is going to be funded?" The answer is found in the Constitution and its traditional implementation.

Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution states that "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." Though the President submits a budget to Congress, and the Congress is supposed to adopt a budget resolution setting aggregate limits, the appropriations process is not designed to legislate the budget as a single block of funds. The Congressional budget resolution breaks spending down to some 20 functional areas which are then dealt with in 12 bills prepared by subcommittees of the House and Senate appropriations committees. Traditionally, the House has initiated consideration of regular appropriations measures, with the Senate then considering and amending the House-passed bills. In many cases, the Senate substitutes is own bill for the House language as a single amendment.

The House and Senate can resolve the differences in their respective bills in a conference where a compromise is reached that is then voted on by both houses. Again, by tradition, the House votes on the conference report first.

So by "regular order" the House does have the right to "pick and choose" what parts of the government are going to be funded and by what amounts. And the Senate then has a right to agree or disagree with the House. The "power of the purse" is the central authority of the legislative branch. The disagreement between the two houses of Congress, controlled by rival parties, is what has closed down substantial parts of the government. The new 2014 Fiscal Year started on October 1 without a single appropriations bill having been enacted by Congress.

The House did pass four appropriations bills: Defense (July 24), Energy and Water (July 10), Homeland Security (June 6) and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (June 4). The Senate did not act on any of the House bills. The Senate Appropriations Committee did vote out amended Homeland Security and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bills, but Sen. Reid did not allow them to come to the floor. Senate Appropriations also voted out is own Defense spending bill, but it did not get to the floor either. To the extent that the shutdown weakens national security or disrupts energy and water projects, the blame falls squarely on Democratic Leader Reid who did not allow the appropriations process to go forward in these key areas.

The Senate has in the past broken tradition and passed its own appropriations bills, but did not do so in this budget cycle. It was the failure of Congress to pass individual appropriation bills for the various departments as structured in their respective committee assignments that led to a rush to pass a temporary "continuing resolution" to fund the government until December 15. Yet, even if a "clean" CR had been passed, it would have not solved the underlying problem of a broken constitutional process.

It is tempting to consider the Senate's refusal to pass a single appropriations bill over the course of the year to be part of a Democratic strategy to trap the House Republicans into an "all or nothing" conundrum at the end of the year. Yet, the House majority did not help themselves by failing to pass all or even most of the appropriations measures needed to keep the bulk of government services running if there was a confrontation over Obamacare (or anything else) as the new fiscal year approached. The House did act on the two areas of its primary duty: Defense and Homeland Security. That the Senate Democratic leadership let these bills sit idle implies a desire to maximize national harm during a legislative stalemate.

The House did introduce appropriations bills for all areas of government except two: Interior and the Environment; and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. This latter bill would have been the proper vehicle for defunding Obamacare. The GOP leadership should have brought to the floor and passed all the other appropriations bills to prove to the public its intent to fund everything except Obamacare. If the Democrats had then refused to act on these House-passed spending bills, the case could have been made that they had intended all along to force a broad government shutdown.

But the Republicans were not able to get their act together. The Transportation and Housing bill was abruptly pulled from floor debate in July when the GOP split over how deep spending cuts should be and it became clear that the bill could not pass the full House. Lack of party unity was evident throughout the year. The failure to pass 8 of 12 appropriation bills made the House Republican leadership appear weak and the rank-and-file look irresponsible. This image has set up the GOP for the accusation that it bears the main blame for the shutdown. The fact that the Democrat-controlled Senate did not pass a single one of the appropriationss bill -- even those covering national security -- which were sent to it by the House, is, of course, being overlooked by the liberal media.