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Spending bill derby

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And they’re off! Not the horses at this weekend’s Kentucky Derby, but lawmakers taking up the fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget. Getting the earliest start in recent memory, the House passed the Military Construction/Veterans Affairs spending bill Wednesday to kick off the appropriations season. The non-controversial bill passed overwhelmingly with 416 ayes to one nay. House leadership quickly followed with the Legislative Branch spending bill and Commerce, Justice, Science is on deck to come up next week.

That would be three spending bills down, nine to go to get the federal government funding set for the next fiscal year that starts October 1, 2014. Of course there’s still a long way to go to get all twelve spending bills done individually and on time (last accomplished in 1994). But, despite historic levels of dysfunction, Congress is in a better position to accomplish the feat than it has been for the last couple of years.

It’s not just getting an early start – a couple of weeks isn’t that big of a difference. It’s also that back in December the House and Senate agreed on the top line level of funding for FY2015. The Bipartisan Budget Agreement of 2013 (BBA) essentially made the need to enact a joint budget resolution where both chambers agreed on spending levels irrelevant. The Senate didn’t even do one. The House did, but it pretty much just rubber stamped what was already agreed to in the BBA.

Another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is that Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) have now worked on two end-of-year spending bills for FY13 and FY14 and churned them out fairly quickly. That type of working relationship and experience shouldn’t be underestimated when coming to a final deal. There will be debates over whether to spend more money in the Department of Labor or on NASA for instance, but having made deals before should help them make deals again. Besides one of the age old disagreements: guns vs. butter – a.k.a. Defense spending vs. non-Defense discretionary spending - was resolved in the BBA. Another sticking point removed.

But despite all that hopeful possibility, the track record of this Congress also cannot be ignored. They haven’t done much, and what they have done has been with a political gun to their heads. Yes, two omnibus spending bills were passed, but one after months of delay and the other after a government shutdown that only ended when the threat of default on the nation’s debts was looming. The BBA was enacted but that was only to figure out some way to give relief from the more austere spending levels mandated by the Budget Control Act that was adopted in the summer of 2011. Other than pride and a determination to be functional there isn’t a lot pushing the FY2015 spending bills along.

And of course with the 2015 election looming, no work is going to be done in September. Especially as the parties contemplate their chances to be in charge of the next Congress being gaveled in January 2015.

All of that means Congress needs to vote early and often on the spending bills if there is half a chance of getting the bills done on time. Lame duck, post-election Congresses shouldn’t be passing major legislation. And the country deserves a government that isn’t hamstrung by staggering from one last minute stopgap short term spending bill to the next as lawmakers make speeches for the benefit of C-Span and their campaign commercials. Lawmakers have a chance to accomplish a rare feat these days. And while it’s not the Triple Crown, the race for regular order is on.

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