One small step.

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Fix Filibusters to Give Spending Bills a Chance

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Senate Republicans are looking to streamline the way Congress funds the federal government. They aren’t going far enough, and Democrats will oppose the relatively small step they propose to take. So the appropriations process will continue to be a mess.

Normally, the Senate can be prevented from even taking up a bill because to do so requires an affirmative vote that can be blocked by a filibuster. Senator Lamar Alexander wants to make that “motion to proceed” a simple majority vote for the 12 appropriations bills authorizing all government spending that isn’t based on automatic formulas (that is, Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements).

It’s not a bad idea. Senate minorities could still use filibusters to block final passage of those bills, but a 60-vote supermajority would no longer be needed for the Senate to begin work on them in the first place.  

The appropriations process hasn’t worked well in years. Instead of passing those individual spending bills, Congress in most years packages all or most of them into a large “omnibus” spending bill. Opportunities for individual senators to offer amendments are lost, and it’s easy for congressional leadership to include controversial provisions because opposing the omnibus bill means shutting down the government.

Alexander’s proposal would only be a modest improvement. After all, no Senate majority leader will want to start the lengthy process of debating one of those 12 bills unless it has a chance of passing. But eliminating one opportunity to filibuster would reduce the time needed to consider this legislation, and an appropriations bill or two could wind up being passed in most years.

A better solution would be to eliminate all filibusters on these spending bills, not only those on the motion to proceed, in exchange for strictly enforcing a ban on including any policy riders. The logic for that proposal is that regular (“authorization”) bills adopt the policies Congress wants; the appropriations part is supposed to be about financing those programs. Since funding bills are must-pass -- again, without them, the government shuts down -- it would be good to make it easier to do so, as long as they don’t become a back-door way to change policy. 

This should be a change that those who care about the Senate should embrace: It strengthens filibusters where they are really needed by eliminating them elsewhere. 

The deck is stacked against that reform. Democrats would oppose it because the minority party always wants to preserve the filibuster. And many conservatives would oppose it because they want to include policy riders on spending bills. House Republicans are already livid because Senate rules make it hard for them to, say, defund Planned Parenthood. 

The result is that we’ll continue to have omnibus spending bills (or, even worse, yearlong continuing resolutions, which keep spending on autopilot). It’s too bad the leaders of the Senate can’t suggest a stronger fix for this chronic failure of government. 

  1. Assuming that there's a filibuster. Since January 2009 everything has been filibustered -- by Republicans when they were the minority party, and by Democrats beginning last year.

  2. For the case in favor of keeping a modified filibuster, see here; for my reform proposals, see here.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net