Shelby tackles ‘regular order’ spending

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 16, 2018


When Congress passed the omnibus spending bill in March, it was the latest verse in a familiar and frustrating song for modern budgeting in Washington, D.C. Too much was spent, too little oversight was applied, and too few lawmakers participated in crafting the final proposal appropriating $1.3 trillion.

Enter Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, whose ascent to the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee came in the wake of the omnibus. Instead of looking back and relitigating past shortcomings, Shelby is looking ahead and attempting to fix the underlying problems that cause these last minute budget windfalls.

“I agree with President Trump that Congress needs to send him individual bills passed through regular order,” Shelby said in April after meeting with Appropriations Committee members to discuss a way forward.

“We agreed on an aggressive schedule and the importance of working in a bipartisan fashion. These members are eager to show that the appropriations process can work, and I’m confident that together we can have 12 regular

appropriations bills available for floor consideration soon.”


What’s ‘Regular Order’?

Congress’ most fundamental constitutional responsibility is to fund the government. Here’s how that process is supposed to work under what’s called “Regular Order”: First, the president submits a budget proposal for the entirety of the federal government. Then, taking or leaving ideas from the president’s proposal, the House and Senate pass a budget resolution that serves as a general framework for how federal dollars are to be spent. After that, the Appropriations Committees work to fill in that framework by crafting 12 different bills funding various programs and departments: defense, veterans affairs, agriculture, etc. The full House and Senate then debate, amend and vote on those bills to eventually send them to the president’s desk.

That’s not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Lately, in Washington’s zero-sum political environment, it has proven virtually impossible. Perhaps the biggest reason why is senators taking advantage of a rule that allows any member to block a bill from receiving an up-or-down vote.

Don’t like how health care is funded in the HHS Appropriations bill? Objection. Didn’t get the rider prohibiting that thing you don’t like in the Transportation title? Objection. Want to turn a relatively obscure funding line item into a political firestorm? Objection. With each objection comes a threat to filibuster, and the Senate’s ability to debate and vote their way through individual appropriations measures dies a little more.

Even if the House of Representatives passes all 12 appropriations bills as it did last year, they wither on the vine in the Senate. Over the course of the year, the backlog builds and Congress ends up in the last-minute, crisis-driven position of passing 2,000-plus page spending bills that few lawmakers have read.


Shelby’s plan

Short abandoning the filibuster, the best way to reform the Appropriations process appears to be changing senators’ habits. If all senators in both parties agree to hold off on the objections and filibuster threats, bills can come to the floor for full debate.

It’s what Politico dubbed the “hold hands and jump” approach.

To enlist support, Shelby is talking to Republican and Democratic Senators on the Appropriations Committee as well as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. In a recent Senate Rules Committee meeting, McConnell and Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois talked about getting back to “the Senate of old” by allowing votes on appropriations measures.

“I remember, Dick, you saying one time, ‘If you don’t want to vote, don’t come to the Senate,’” McConnell said.

The Senator from Illinois was intrigued.

“Think about it. Twelve appropriations bills coming to the floor subject to debate and amendments? It’ll be like the Senate of old,” Durbin said. “Let’s pick an appropriations bill, put some training wheels on it, and head it to the floor and see how this works.”


A Thankless Legacy?

When Shelby became Appropriations Chairman, most Alabama politicos gleefully dreamed about all the federal dollars he would now be able to direct back home. It’s hard to blame anyone for thinking that, especially considering the billions Shelby has been responsible for even from beyond the chairmanship.

What if, though, Shelby’s leadership of the committee brings another legacy, one that’s a little different and would impact the entire nation: making the appropriations process work again?

For those who understand how broken the process is and how much that contributes to a growing national debt, the gratitude would be widespread and heartfelt. But, what about for everyday Alabamians who don’t follow the minutiae of the federal appropriations process? It’s their votes that have sent Shelby to the Senate all these years, but would most even know about his role in such a fundamental shift in federal budgeting?

“Every American would benefit from Congress getting its act together on federal spending and moving the Appropriations process forward as it was intended,” Sen. Shelby told Alabama Daily News.

“Alabamians understand the value of a dollar and they don’t want to see their taxes go to waste. That’s important to me, and it’s important for the future of our country.”


Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. His 15-year career in Alabama politics spanned from the State House in Montgomery to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Subscribe for free to his Daily News Digest for political news and analysis at