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Power of the purse? Congress poised to punt, again, on budget duties

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In this May 22, 2013 photo, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., speaks at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Reuters)

There may not be a government shutdown this fall.

But it’s more than likely Congress will again punt on its budget duties.

Under the Constitution, “no money” can be drawn without congressional appropriations. In Federalist paper #58, James Madison argued that a “House of Representatives” was most responsible to the public, and therefore spending should be the province of the House. Madison wrote those who “hold the purse” wielded a “powerful instrument” against “the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of government.”

Yet sometime in the next two weeks, the House of Representatives hopes to pass only what is called a “continuing resolution,” or CR, to avoid another partial government shutdown on Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year. The Senate will presumably follow suit.

By definition, a CR doesn’t alter spending from one fiscal year to the next. It simply re-ups the same allocations for each program at essentially the same level from the previous fiscal year. No changes. No alterations. No policy changes.

The CR is expected to run deep into the fall. That’s when Congress will try to pass a few of the individual spending bills to reflect its collective judgment on policy and programs. More money here. Less money there. Follow the money to understand the priorities of lawmakers and the president.

If lawmakers fail to approve some of those individual spending bills this autumn, Congress will likely approve yet another CR or an omnibus spending package (glomming all of the spending bills into one measure) to run until Sept. 30, 2015. When a new Congress starts in January, the appropriations process starts all over again with new budget requests from all federal agencies.

In the contemporary Congress, this is what constitutes, as Madison said, exercising that “most complete and effectual weapon” in the congressional arsenal. One or two gigantic CR’s or omnibus bills are all Congress may have to show for how it controlled the purse strings.

So what’s the hold-up? Political crevasses between Democrats and Republicans -- to say nothing of chasms cleaving the House and Senate -- prevented the passage of a number of individual appropriations bills to fund various sectors of the government. That forced congressional leaders to cram all spending into a CR or an omnibus spending bill – and once again fall short of Madison’s ideal of congressional influence.  

Both House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., had expressed a desire to pass as many of the individual appropriations bills through their respective chambers as possible this cycle.

Rogers and Mikulski missed their targets -- though the House fared significantly better than the Senate in this exercise. In fact there was a period in early spring that Rogers and Mikulski tried to sync up their consideration of appropriations bills so they could go quickly to conference committees to blend the House and Senate measures into a final unified plan ready for the president’s signature.

Curbing spending has been a top priority of many Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers who entered Congress in the past two election cycles. Legendary fights over government shutdowns, the debt ceiling and mandatory budget cuts under sequestration decimated the annual appropriations drills. A substantial segment of lawmakers in both bodies have never served in Congress outside the realm of CR’s and omnibus spending packages. They’ve never been a part of the “traditional” and now bordering-on-extinct appropriations process. While conservative lawmakers may have succeeded in restraining some spending, they’ve never asserted their authority over federal policy by either adding or subtracting funds from federal programs. That’s the power Madison wrote about it. In the end, the appropriations process is a shadow of what it was years ago.

The one place some lawmakers attempted to exert their influence was on last year’s CR to avoid a partial government shutdown. Conservatives in the House and Senate repeatedly tried to latch to the spending plan various proposals to defund ObamaCare. That tactic failed and helped prompt the impasse.

So far this year, there’s been chatter that some Republicans may try to attach riders to a CR to prevent any executive action by President Obama on immigration and border issues. However, that talk calmed in recent days as White House officials indicated the president may not take action on immigration until later this year or next.

The House Republican leadership wants to move as expeditiously as possible on as “clean” a CR when lawmakers return. In other words, they want few additional issues piled onto the package.

“We want to move quickly. The longer we’re in town, the more the chances [are] for shenanigans,” said one senior House Republican aide.

And the leadership isn’t game to hook any immigration-related items to the CR out of fear that could invite a repeat of last year’s shutdown showdown.

“They don’t want to placate the crazies,” said a senior GOP source when asked about possible efforts by some conservatives who want to block the president on immigration-related executive actions.

Despite all this, Congress retains the “power of the purse” which Madison found so important. It’s just that power hasn’t been so potent lately.

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.