To keep pork and pet projects from holding national security hostage, use budget reconciliation.
by Chris Jacobs, The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2022
It has become an end-of-year ritual—Congress passes an omnibus spending bill totaling thousands of pages and spending trillions of dollars. The yearly tradition of heavy spending passed within hours highlights the pork-barrel bargaining that many Americans hate about Washington. But strange as it sounds, Democrats’ 2021 spending blowout provides a road map for Republicans to avoid such unrestrained measures in the future.
While he was president, Donald Trump railed against massive spending bills—and then signed them. In March 2018, after backing down from his threat to veto that year’s omnibus, he vowed, “I will never sign another bill like this again.” But in December 2020, Mr. Trump signed another omnibus measure, this one running more than 5,400 pages and with more than $1 trillion in additional Covid and other spending attached.
In his 2018 remarks, Mr. Trump identified the main dynamic that leads to big spending bills: “There are a lot of things that we shouldn’t have had in this bill, but we were, in a sense, forced—if we want to build our military—we were forced to have.” Democrats will agree to appropriate levels of defense spending only if Republicans agree to fund their pet domestic projects. To this “everyone gets a pony” spending-spree mentality, add myriad pieces of unrelated legislation, thousands of earmarks and pork-barrel projects to secure the votes of recalcitrant lawmakers, and you get an omnibus bill that Congress will pass before anyone has read it.
Preventing the annual omnibus disaster involves heading it off at the pass—and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a blueprint for doing so. The act included about $1.9 trillion for Covid relief and other government outlays. Appropriations measures are subject to a filibuster, so that they effectively require 60 votes for Senate passage. To skirt that requirement, Democrats enacted their spending blowout through the budget-reconciliation process, which allowed the bill to pass the Senate with a simple majority vote.
The 2021 reconciliation bill also blended the line between mandatory spending programs, which effectively operate on autopilot, and those funded by discretionary appropriations, which lawmakers must renew every year. Previous budget-reconciliation bills altered federal spending solely by making changes to mandatory programs—say, by adjusting Medicare payment rates to doctors, or changing eligibility for Medicaid or food stamps. But the 2021 reconciliation bill also created numerous pots of federal funds for agencies—from nearly $123 billion for public K-12 schools to roughly $21.6 billion for rental assistance.
Traditionally, Congress funded this agency spending through annual appropriations bills, not via reconciliation. The 60-vote threshold gives each party an effective veto over the legislation. This dynamic lends itself to collaboration between Republican and Democratic appropriators to increase spending—with taxpayers footing the bill.
But because the Senate parliamentarian allowed Democrats to create new slush funds for domestic spending with a simple majority via budget reconciliation in 2021, a future Republican Congress can do the same for defense spending. Passing a separate bill to fund national security would eliminate the leverage that Democrats always use to extract additional spending for their favored domestic projects.
A Republican could win the White House in 2024, with coattails that result in GOP House and Senate majorities. If that happens, Republicans should use unified government to budget for national security needs via reconciliation. That would let lawmakers provide not only substantial funding but a predictable source of federal dollars over a longer 10-year period—instrumental to keeping a stable industrial base for the nation’s military. Using reconciliation also would eliminate the Democratic tactic of holding national security hostage to their push for climate measures and other unrelated spending.
That last scenario would give the next Republican president every reason to veto another bloated end-of-year omnibus bill. Candidates in the presidential primaries should pledge to address defense needs via budget reconciliation to bring the annual omnibus madness to an end.
Mr. Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group and author of “The Case Against Single Payer.”