Academics and Research

Quick Questions: Political scientist Peter Hanson on the U.S. Senate and budget bills

Peter Hanson is an assistant professor of political science and a former staff member in the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. His new book, “Too Weak To Govern. Majority Party Power and Appropriations in the U.S. Senate,” was recently released by Cambridge University Press.


Question: The news at the end of 2014 was all about the last-minute passage of the CRomnibus spending bill. Taxpayers want to know: Is the omnibus approach in their best interests?

Answer: Omnibus bills are bad for everyone. This year, we passed a $1 trillion bill containing all the discretionary funding for the government. It was hastily debated at the end of session, and no member of the House or Senate had the opportunity to amend it.  It included provisions that shouldn’t be in the budget at all, such as the one loosening campaign finance laws to allow bigger donations to political parties. This way of passing the budget allows it to be written behind closed doors and prevents most members from carrying out their basic responsibility of lawmaking. There’s no transparency or accountability. It needs to change.


Q: The new Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, has promised to restore the annual appropriations process to previous norms. What does that mean? Is he likely to do so, and if so, what will that accomplish?

A: Historically, Congress adopted a budget by passing around a dozen individual spending bills funding different parts of the government. The advantage of this way of doing business is that it allows members to scrutinize every part of the budget and offer amendments to make changes. Today, it has become common to bundle all of the bills together into a single package that is usually passed at the last minute without serious debate. McConnell has promised to return to the traditional way of passing the budget. I think that’s a worthy goal, but it is easier said than done. Debate in the Senate has become unmanageable due to high levels of partisanship. Omnibus bills are a response to this fact.


Q: What role does the infamous filibuster play in the Senate’s appropriations process?

A: It takes a supermajority of 60 votes to end debate on a bill and vote in the Senate, and that makes it very hard to pass legislation in today’s highly partisan environment. There is always someone with an objection, and it’s very hard for the majority to round up 60 votes to move forward. Congressional leaders form omnibus bills as a response to this gridlock. They know that individual spending bills are likely to bog down on the Senate floor. As a result, they package them together and then wait until funding for the government is about to expire to bring them up for debate. They count on the fact that members won’t be willing to block a bill containing all the funding for the government just days before the government will shut down. It gets the job done, but it’s a terrible way to pass a budget. If McConnell is serious about returning to the traditional way of debating and passing individual spending bills, then he will need better tools to control debate on the Senate floor. As matters stand, appropriations bills will get caught in a quagmire of filibusters and waves of amendments. The only way to solve this problem is to reform the filibuster so that a simple majority of senators can pass legislation. We need to strike a balance between allowing a healthy debate on spending bills without allowing matters to bog down and prevent a decision from being made at all.

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