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A Better Way to Determine How Your Tax Dollars are Spent

Again this month, Congress is operating under a Continuing Resolution, or CR, that expires just a few days before Christmas. The intent is to back Members of Congress and the White House into a corner, hoping they will be willing to accept a massive end-of-year spending package that they might otherwise oppose. This is not a new phenomenon – it’s been happening under our modern budget process since 1974. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. We must demand better when it comes to deciding how your tax dollars are spent.

Here’s how our budget process is supposed to work: The regular budget process begins when the president submits his budget request to Congress, due in February, outlining his or her ideas for spending priorities for the following fiscal year that begins in October. Congress then crafts its own budget, a comprehensive road map to be used in the appropriations process between February and the October 1st deadline.

The process then moves to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. These committees use the budget blueprint – which sets overall spending caps – to consider and pass 12 appropriations bills, which write the specific funding levels for individual programs within the federal government for defense spending and non-defense discretionary spending. I should make note that this only accounts for approximately 30 percent of what we spend today.

Once the appropriations bills pass both houses of Congress, the differences between the bills are reconciled through a conference committee report. The conference committee report becomes the actual appropriations bill in each case. Once the conference committee reports pass the House and Senate, they then go to the president, and once he signs it the federal government is funded until the next budget cycle. This is all supposed to be done well before the September 30 deadline.

But that’s not what really happens. In reality, Congress rarely passes a budget and the president’s budget is seen as little more than a messaging tool. Appropriators regularly drag their feet on getting their committee work done, Members hold up progress for political theater, and bills that actually do make it to the full Senate floor are too often riddled with ‘poison pills’ deliberately designed to kill the legislation. This leaves Congress with the false choice of passing a CR or shutting down the government, both of which waste money, harm our military and fail to bring about meaningful discussions on how your tax money is spent.

When I came to the Senate five years ago, I immediately voiced my opposition to this backwards way of appropriating, along with a number of my newly-confirmed Senate colleagues. Among many other things, I’ve been deeply concerned about the impact on our military. Military leaders continue to warn that CRs have a detrimental impact on our ability to train, equip and maintain the force. Leadership understood our concerns but asked us to be patient – this broken process has been around for a long time, and it would take time to convince the ‘old bulls’ to return to regular order. We agreed to give them time, but we did not let up.

After two years of going through the appropriations process without progress, I joined a group of my colleagues to call on Senate leadership to delay or cancel the in-state August work period so we could make progress on our appropriations work well ahead of the September 30 deadline of 2017, in addition to other issues. They agreed, and progress was made, though not enough. The following year, we did the same thing, again successfully, and for the first time since we came to the Senate, Congress passed and the president signed appropriations bills into law ahead of the September 30, 2018 deadline. In all, approximately 75 percent of government operations were funded on time through regular order. But the victory was short-lived, as the remaining 25 percent of government operated under a CR and – eventually – was shut down for 35 days this past December and January.

This way of doing business should appall every one of us. During the appropriations process for this fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2019, as I’ve done in the past, I voted no on CRs after no progress was made. Our appropriations process is a mess. Unless more of us take a stand and reject the status quo, we’ll never get back to where we need to be to actually impact spending and to begin to rein-in our debt. I remain committed to getting us back on track. I will share more about the impact CRs have specifically on our military in a future column.