When the 115th Congress begins next January less than fifteen percent of Congress will include members that had been through a complete and on-time appropriations process. Depending on the election results, combined with announced retirements, members that had been in office when appropriations was on time (1996) will dwindle to at least 11 percent in the Senate and at least 15 percent in the House.  Elections results could make those percentages go even lower.

The bleak percentages may be why some members of Congress including the Senate Budget Chair, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), are seeking budget rules reforms that would have an impact on both the budget resolution process as well as the appropriations process.

In 1996 all appropriations bill (there were thirteen back then) were signed by President Clinton before October 1.  In that year not all thirteen were sent separately to the President, some were combined with the Defense Department and the Labor-HHS bills as a final package to President Clinton by October 1, well before that year’s presidential election.  The remaining eight bills were sent to the President individually before the Defense Omnibus bill.  In 1994 each of the 13 bills did go to the President Clinton long before the October 1, deadline.

Under the proposals Enzi is offering, a new set of rules would be created to reform and restrict some of the 1974 budget rules while mandating some congressional action.  In a recent publication Senator Enzi pointed out that every year between the creation of the Budget Act of 1974 and 1998 Congress passed a budget resolution.  That is no longer true and in fact it’s more likely no joint conference budget resolution is adopted.

A key point in the Enzi ten-point plan is a requirement that once a budget resolution is adopted (presumably by the April 15 deadline) Congress could not act on any other legislation between the budget resolution passage and the August summer break.  When the appropriations was functioning, the House would likely finish at least half the bills by the July 4th break and send all bills over to the Senate by the August break.  The Senate would be on a slower track but most of the bills would have been agreed to by the August break with adoption of some conference agreements. Only the toughest, usually Defense and HHS were left for the final deals in September.

Enzi’s proposals would also include publication of the proposed budget resolution at least 24 hours before debate and there would be requirements to publish proposed amendments during the budget resolution debate. He would also propose a two-third threshold to waive a violation of budget spending caps.  Current rules require 60 votes.  At the same time, bills that exceed spending caps by minor amounts would not have to be waived.  There would also be limitations on stacking dozens of amendment which results in what some in the Senate refer to as a “vote-a-rama” that usually has the Senate spend hours in simply casting votes on dozens of amendments that are generally meaningless and are designed to put members on record on controversial issues.  His proposal, as well as proposals by reform groups, would limit the use of “reserve funds” whereby members sets up a reserve fund to fund a priority which on occasion has included areas such as child care, education and child welfare.  These reserve funds, which can sometimes total more than a dozen in a single budget resolution, are also generally message amendments that don’t result in actual changes or legislation.

Whether any changes result will take a bipartisan will that has been in short supply in recent years.  With more and more members of Congress with a history and deep respect for the appropriations process such as Appropriations Chairs Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) leaving, it may be a challenge to restore a regular order.