The first appropriations bill, which was passed in 1789,was just thirteen lines long and totaled $639,000. This money funded the entire government for the year and included the pensions of the Revolutionary War veterans. It was the responsibility of the Committee on Ways and Means, established earlier in the same year, which also had jurisdiction over tax policy. However, during this period legislation and funding were kept separate and spelled out in separate bills. It was not until 1865 that a new Committee on Appropriations was created in House, which removed appropriating duties from the Ways and Means Committee. In 1867, the Senate established its own Committee on Appropriation, separating it from the Committee on Finance.
An agency may not spend more than the amount appropriated to it and may only use the funds for the purpose and subject provided by Congress. In time, Congress passed the Budget and Accounting Act in 1921 which centralized the budgeting functions of the federal government with the President. The President submits a budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year to Congress for consideration, and the various subcommittees will review and debate and generate a series of appropriations bills to allocate funding to government agencies and programs.
While the passage of the federal budget process infringed on Congress’ constitutional power of the purse, this infringement was minimal given the limited size of administrative functions at the federal level. It was not until the 1970s and the Great Society that expanded the role of the federal government and the public consensus over the need for balanced budgets began to break down. Since then, the federal budget has become a tool to control federal policy and either fuel or limit the growth of the administrative state.
Over the last 47 years, Congress has only completed the appropriation process for the fiscal year three times, most recently for FY 1997. Congress’s inability to enact regular appropriations by the start of the fiscal year on October 1 will result in a Continuing Resolution (CR), temporary spending bills that allow government operations to continue when a final appropriation has not been passed, or a government shut down. When a CR is in place, appropriations generally stay at the same level for a period of time. CRs can range from 1 day to months. Famously, President Clinton declared in 2000 that he would only sign one-day CRs, forcing members of Congress to return to Washington to broker a spending deal.
Congress’s ongoing use of CRs allows the unelected bureaucracy to determine its own priorities and needs without detailed control by the legislative branch. As Ronald Reagan has said, “No government voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” The use of CRs exacerbates this phenomena. It also creates uncertainty, breeds wastefulness, and harms military capabilities and readiness. The CR essentially kicks the can down the road, but instead of buying time for regular appropriation bills, Congress usually folds individual appropriation bills into a mammoth bill called the Omnibus. An omnibus spending bill combines two or more appropriation bills into a single bill.
We have become so used to omnibus and continuing resolutions to fund our government that most Americans don’t recognize how dysfunctional use of these packages really is. The deterioration of the appropriations process means there is little ability to focus on policy debate without shutting down the entire government. Instead, power is concentrated in leadership to negotiate the ins and outs of the bill and present over $1.5 trillion in spending to be voted on as a take it or shut down the government choice.
Under the current dysfunctional process of funding the federal government, there is no real distinction between governing, prioritizing choices based on available resources, and simply providing funding for programs. The appropriations clause of the Constitution is a limitation of government excess. However, the current mode of funding the government through CRs and Omnibus bills flies in the face of this Constitutional limit. Arguably Congress’s most important legislative tool is the power to control federal spending. Yet its continued use of CRs and omnibus bills defers much of that power out of the hands of the people’s representatives and into the hands of the unelected bureaucracy.
With a new Republican House of Representatives—the legislative chamber that controls the purse strings of the federal government—conservatives leadership has an opportunity to reassert the role of Congress in the budget process. House Republicans should make it a priority to regain control of its “power of the purse” and move back to true appropriations bills, thereby removing this power from unelected federal bureacrats.
By reasserting its authority over federal spending, Congress has the opportunity to help restore the constitutional balance that the Framers envisioned and appropriate federal funds based on the policy priorities of the American people.