Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pork, CR's, Omnibus Bills, and Government Shutdowns

The post's title probably seems a bit broad.  What do congressional pork, continuing resolutions, omnibus bills, and government shutdowns have to do with each other?  Well, as usual, I'm going to ramble a bit before I get to the bottom line.  So please bear with me.

Years ago, I thought pork added to Congress's bills was a waste of taxpayer money.  I applauded when Congress decided to do away with most pork.  You would get spending on a bridge, a road, a museum, a strange contract, or anything else the congress person thought was valuable to him or her.  Most times, it probably was of benefit to his or her voters.  Some times, it was likely a benefit only to a campaign contributor or to the congress person themselves.  In my time in the military, I would see pork as direction to spend money on a specific contract and/or product.  I didn't like that.

But my position has evolved.  It was a useful tool to get votes in congress to pass a bill.  In the past, I thought that was a good thing to get rid of.  There were too many bills enlarging government and spending my money while at the same time reducing my freedoms.  I thought, the fewer bills that were passed the better.

But there comes a point, and we've seen it since they did away with pork, where Congress doesn't seem able to pass even the minimum of bills necessary for the proper functioning of government.  It used to be that they passed about 12 authorization and appropriation bills every year or two to fund the various parts of the government.  One of those sets of bills kept the military going.

Instead, they now pass continuing resolutions (CR's).  Basically, that means the government, and each of its sub-units is limited to the funding they received in the prior year, and only that portion (minus a percentage) due until the end of the temporary CR.  You are not allowed to start any new projects; i.e., no new research and development, no new bridge, no new museum, etc.  You also do not have any different level of funds in a given Program Element (PE).  Appropriation bills, if my memory serves, specified how much money goes into each PE and what it could be spent on.  With a CR, the PE cannot evolve.  So if you have a research and development project that was doing some early development, and you are ready to build a more expensive prototype for testing, you won't have the additional funds needed.  If you have refined your production process in a low-rate production contract and are ready to start producing at full rate, you cannot.  You won't have the additional money needed.  The government sub-unit has a limited capability to shift funds around.  But anything significant, like redirecting from one PE to another, requires congressional approval.  Essentially, a CR throws any kind of change and improvement in government planning and operations into chaos.

And why do they do CR's instead of authorization/appropriation bills?  Because they cannot get the votes in the Senate to pass them.  To vote on any bill, you need 60 votes to even get to the roll call. Sometimes a party preventing 60 votes is called a filibuster.  In other cases, its just following the Senate's rules.

Now, after a few CR's each year, Congress seems to come to the conclusion that an omnibus bill is the only alternative to funding the rest of the year's government operations.  Instead of living with last year's funding levels.  They increase the level, across the board.  Spending goes up, but without the fine tuning that the authorization/appropriation bills provided.  I don't get my smaller government (its getting larger), and I also don't see refining and improved efficiency in any agency.  In military procurement spending, I see crippled plans and reduced preparedness to fight any future wars.

But then there's the occasional problem with this smooth, sub-par process.  One party or another decides they want something that the other party isn't providing.  They vote down a CR and the government shuts down.  With the Senate majority apparently limited to a 51-59 range, the majority party running the Senate does not have enough votes to get to an up or down vote on the CR.  With no vote on the CR, there is no CR.

Without a CR, the government directs non-essential operations to be terminated.  The rules seem to vary a bit, but excluding Obama's vindictive shutdown operations, most of the time any operations not involving public safety or ongoing military operations are terminated.  The military keeps working, but 'without pay.'  Even those not in essential operations.  In one shutdown, I worked at a military laboratory.  But 95% of the employees were civil service.  I cleaned out my inbox and did paperwork while all of the civilians were sent home.  We all assumed we would get paid once the shutdown ended (always true so far).

Some civilians look at a shutdown as a vacation.  But it's only a vacation if you want to spend some unplanned time at home for an unknown period of time.  You cannot travel; you have to return to work when the shutdown ends--and you do not know when that will happen.  Plus, you are not getting paid.  If you have a nice bank account level, that's not a problem.  If you are younger or living paycheck to paycheck, it can have a serious impact.

But the shutdown, in essence, is just a political game between the parties.  One party thinks the voter impact will aid their cause.  Over time, the losing party, in public opinion, gives in and changes their position.  Since the public opinion is based on what voters want, this usually means spending more money--pork!

And we are finally to my bottom line.  Allow pork in bills again, and we can get a few votes swung, enough to offset political party and leadership pressure, and maybe get the authorization and appropriation bills through the Senate again.  Sure, you spend a bit more, but at least to me, it seems worth it to offset the drawbacks of the CR's and the nearly unrestrained spending increases inherent in the omnibus spending bills.

Fewer CR's and omnibus bills also means fewer government shutdowns!