How Congress flunked basic Schoolhouse Rock lesson

 (By J. Scott Applewhite/AP )
(By J. Scott Applewhite/AP )

With the federal government shut down because Congress failed to fund it, it seems reasonable to ask just how far astray our lawmakers have gone from doing what school children learn as being its basic job. In this post, Stuart Kasdin, assistant professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, explains.

By Stuart Kasdin

Does routine exposure to violent music lyrics or video games desensitize people to the underlying brutality of their contents?  As we get accustomed to indecency are we more accommodating to more extreme forms of inappropriate behavior?  We can see a test of these questions going on now in Congress.

One of Congress’ primary Constitutional responsibilities is the power of the purse.  Accordingly, Schoolhouse Rock taught children that Congress completes the regular annual appropriation bills before the start of the fiscal year.

These appropriation bills are detailed: they provide specific funding for each line item across all government programs, along with guidance and instructions, on program implementation and execution, some of which is excessively controlling and micro-managerial, but that’s a discussion for another day.  Thousands of pages are generated in the process along with subcommittees holding numerous hearings on a multitude of appropriation topics.  However, while Schoolhouse Rock didn’t mention it, sometimes it was difficult to complete all the appropriations bills by October 1, so a stop-gap, short term  funding bill was necessary to bridge the period until the regular bill was passed.

Currently, we have given up that expectation of timely annual appropriations.   Congress has not passed any appropriation bills.  Not a single program received its funding when it was supposed to.  That’s new.

Instead, Congress is attempting merely to pass short-term funding, the continuing resolution, to cover the period until Congress completes the regular appropriation bill.  A continuing resolution should be relatively simple.  Unlike the detailed and lengthy regular appropriations, a continuing resolution is short, covering only several pages.  Instead of appropriations for each program and sub-program, Congress uses a formula to determine the funding for all government programs.  For example, the formula might fund all programs based on the same funding level as last year’s appropriation.   Moreover, continuing resolutions are essentially devoid of policy.  Their whole function is to enable Congress to have the time to complete the regular appropriations without government shutdowns.

Continuing resolutions are not desirable.  It is true that agencies do receive funds to operate their programs; however, it is only in a caretaker fashion.  Since the final appropriation levels may change, programs cannot start new projects, buy new equipment, hire new staff, or let new contracts.  As a result, after the regular appropriations arrive, agencies must scramble to complete their work.  Continuing resolutions are inefficient and costly for the government.

We are not stalemated in our ability to pass a continuing resolution.  It may be true that not passing a continuing resolution might give the Republicans in the House leverage over the Senate and the president.  However, it does not mean it is a good idea or consistent with how the Founding Fathers intended the government to operate.  The Constitution is designed so that the president and each chamber of the Congress must cooperate for anything to be accomplished.  There are checks and balances.  The institutions overlap in the authority and jurisdiction.

The Constitution would support the notion that tea party Republicans be true to their constituents and not vote for any bill funding the Affordable Care Act.  It does not mean that they can play Samson and destroy the chamber unless their demands are met.  Actions that are destructive to the economy and to the livelihoods of so many are not an appropriate instrument for enhancing ones’ influence beyond what one’s numbers in Congress would suggest.

How does the public regard the current performance of the Republican members of the House?   Has this ineffectual Congress so profoundly dropped our standards for what good performance should be?  Like an addict, in which repeated exposure to a drug leads to habituation, will the public display only a mild reaction as the House zealously pursues confrontation without end and seemingly without purpose?  Have we come to accept routine partisan conflict and the resulting ineffectualness as acceptable performance for Congress?

And so we find ourselves desperately seeking a continuing resolution.  No one is talking about the failure to enact regular appropriations.  The perversity of our current situation is that people are hoping for the merely inefficient.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 4, 2013