Magazine | October 5, 2015, Issue

Break Up the Budget

Learning from Republican mistakes.

Republicans are once again contemplating a defeat on the budget followed by recriminations. This season the defeat will concern Planned Parenthood: Some Republicans think that they should take a stand against federal funding for the organization in the bill to keep the government funded at the start of the new fiscal year; the top-ranking Republicans in Congress think they are sure to lose that fight and so don’t want to start it.

But before Planned Parenthood, there was the standoff in the spring over funding the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans wanted to deny funding for the implementation of President Obama’s unilateral amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. And before that, in late 2013, was the struggle to defund Obamacare, which resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government. In both episodes, Republicans were divided and defeated.

One group of Republicans blames the party’s leaders for being too timorous to fight these battles through to the end; another blames conservative backbenchers for starting unwinnable fights. Both groups should turn their minds to the possibility that the way Congress considers spending legislation stacks the deck against conservative victories. While reform of that process might not be as exciting as factional infighting, and cannot substitute for either intelligence or courage among politicians, it might help.

Congressional Republicans could, for example, break up the budget — or at least the portion of the budget that is subject to yearly congressional funding decisions — into many smaller pieces. Congress currently divides the budget into twelve large bills, with each subcommittee of the House and Senate appropriations committees responsible for one. It could, however, fund the different departments of the federal government in dozens of smaller bills, and it should.

Fragmenting the budget would run counter to a theory that many congressional conservatives have implicitly accepted in recent years. They assumed that tying together as many items in the budget as possible would give them leverage over a liberal president. Congress could pass a bill to fund the government but attach a provision denying all money to Obamacare, and President Obama would have to relent to keep the government running. Or Congress could pass a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security but deny funds for Obama’s immigration order, and he would have to relent to keep the department running.

One lesson of these fights is that this theory is wrong: Tying all of this spending together doesn’t increase congressional conservatives’ control over any of it. It reduces that control. During the immigration fight, the Obama administration’s most frequently made argument, which suggests it was also its most effective argument, was that holding up the Department of Homeland Security’s budget endangered the war on terrorism.

Republicans would have been better off if they had been able to advance two bills: one funding the department except for the immigration services, and the other funding the immigration services but prohibiting them from implementing the disputed Obama orders. The administration would have been hard pressed to object to the first bill, and could not have scared the public quite as easily about the second.

Indeed, Republicans’ conduct during these showdowns has shown that they occasionally grasp the utility of splitting up the budget. During the shutdown in October 2013, Republicans at one point moved bills to fund portions of the government unrelated to health care. They understood that they were not giving up leverage but taking some away from the Democrats.

We should expect conservatives to fare better, on average, with many small budget bills than with a few big ones. If the National Endowment for the Arts required congressional action and a presidential signature to fund it every year, it would probably not have survived this long: At some point there would have been a House or Senate majority unwilling to pass legislation funding it or a president unwilling to sign that legislation. But Congress doesn’t make an affirmative decision specifically on the NEA: It includes the money in bills funding the Interior Department. There has never been a majority in either house of Congress willing to shut down the department over the program — and it is impossible to kill the program through that bill unless the House, the Senate, and the presidency are all controlled by opponents of it or people willing to give in to them.

There is, however, a practical force working toward agglomerating many spending decisions into one bill. In recent years, especially, Congress has often failed to pass the appropriations bills on time and has had to pass “continuing resolutions,” or CRs, to keep funding many of the operations of the government after the old appropriations or CRs expired.

But that practice too ought to change. Congress should enact an “automatic CR,” as Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint proposed when he was a senator, along with Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas. They called it the “Government Shutdown Prevention Act.” It stipulated that when Congress failed to enact spending bills in time for the new fiscal year, the affected agencies would be able to keep spending either at the previous year’s level, at the level the House had provided for if it had passed a spending bill, or at the level the Senate had provided for if it had, whichever was the lowest.

With such a law in place, there would be very little pressure to rush through massive budget bills. Liberal congressmen and presidents, it is true, would be able to resist bills with spending cuts or conservative reforms, secure in the knowledge that programs would still be funded. But liberals would have to give up on funding increases if they took that course. Conservative congressmen and presidents, meanwhile, would also have security against liberal policy changes, and the history of shutdowns suggests that conservatives have more to gain from taking shutdowns off the table.

A small-is-beautiful approach to budget bills and an end to shutdowns would not, however, be a panacea. The Department of Homeland Security and the immigration service within it are largely “self-funded,” that is, funded through fees that they charge rather than from congressional appropriations. Even if Congress fails to pass the annual bill funding them, they can keep going. Obamacare is largely outside the appropriations process, too. Planned Parenthood gets some of its federal money from Title X, which is subject to appropriations; but it also gets federal money from Medicaid, which isn’t.

That suggests another long-term reform that ought to be on conservatives’ agenda: moving more of the budget back under congressional control. If Republicans have the presidency and Congress in 2017, they should pass a law denying the immigration service the ability to spend any money, including money that comes to them via fees, without congressional authorization. They should do the same for other self-funded agencies.

These reforms, once in place, would be particularly helpful for congressional conservatives the next time they faced off against a liberal president. But they are not shortsightedly focused on that scenario. Breaking up the budget would tend to make limiting government easier regardless of who runs which chamber. An automatic CR that keeps spending growth under tight control would work in favor of conservatives even if liberals controlled Congress. And while greater congressional control of the budget would sometimes work in favor of liberals in Congress, it too would tend to work to the advantage of conservatives, both because they have been less likely to use executive discretion to shape domestic policy and because the bureaucracy is not their friend.

No set of reforms is going to make it easy for conservatives to limit the size and scope of government or to reassert congressional control over it. The current budget process, though, seems to work systematically to frustrate conservative ambitions. When conservatives in Washngton get tired enough of the results, perhaps they will try to change it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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