The Curious Concept Of “Clean” Continuing Resolutions

Many states have constitutional provisions that require any bill to be limited to a single subject.  The provisions are motivated by “good government” notions — if legislation can only address one subject, legislators and the public will be better informed about the contents of bills, there will be no opportunity to slip hidden, extraneous provisions into bills, and there will be less vote-trading and log-rolling.

Contrast the “single-subject” concept with Congress’ increasing use of a “continuing resolution” — that is, a single bill that funds the entire federal government, from stem to stern, from Department of Defense to the National Park Service to the Houses of Congress, through one up-or-down vote.  With the federal government facing another debt ceiling and funding crisis, President Obama and others are talking about a “clean” continuing resolution, but in reality there’s not much that is “clean” about continuing resolutions.

As we all remember from high school civics and Schoolhouse Rock, Congress is supposed to hold hearings and committee meetings, draft specific appropriations bills for the different departments of the federal government, and send them to the President for his signature or veto.  Such a process allows for the kind of careful, thoughtful evaluation of programs that the Constitution envisions.  But careful, thoughtful evaluation is hard work, and tough votes can upset potential campaign contributors.  That’s why, in recent decades, Congress and the President have resorted more and more to continuing resolutions — to the point where omnibus continuing resolutions have become the primary mechanism of federal spending.

It’s a lazy, terrible way to run a government.  Continuing resolutions are an avoidance mechanism and the ultimate form of log-rolling.  Congress and the President get to shirk the hard work of examining individual departments and being held accountable for votes on whether a particular agency deserves more or less money or whether a specific program should be continued or ended.  Instead, they get to shrug and talk about simply casting one vote to fund the entire federal government.  Pet programs get rolled in with essential government services, and the testimony of the heads of spy agencies is cited to justify a vote that also funds every boondoggle, benefits program, and construction project.

People wring their hands about waste, fraud, and abuse in the individual programs of the federal government.  Continuing resolutions ensure that we’ll never meaningfully address that topic.  So don’t talk to me about “clean” continuing resolutions.  It’s an inherently dirty device.

A Living Civics Lesson

We all remember high school civics, that dreaded class taught by an earnest yet numbingly boring guy who probably was the assistant wrestling coach.  He spoke of the balance of powers, the three branches of government, and how a bill becomes a law.  And, most of all, he talked about how important it is for each citizen to exercise their franchise.  “Every vote counts” and “every vote is meaningful” he would say, as most students rolled their eyes and some audibly snickered.

Well, yesterday voters in the primary election to select the Republican candidate for Congress in Michigan’s First Congressional District got a real-life civics lesson.  More than 99,000 voters cast their ballots in a multiple-candidate runoff, and according to the preliminary results on the Michigan Secretary of State website, top vote-getter Dan Benishek leads Jason Allen by exactly one vote.

No doubt there are ardent Jason Allen supporters in the District who, for whatever reason, just didn’t get around to voting, and now they are kicking themselves because they are personally responsible for their candidate’s loss.  And it is equally probable that somewhere a civics teacher is smiling, knocking together their chalk-covered hands, and saying:  “See?  I told you so!”

Paying Attention And Participating

Richard’s post below reminded me of a point that I wanted to make before the whole health care debate effectively ends, supposedly with a vote on Sunday in the House of Representatives.  Whether you support or oppose the “health care reform” legislation — and even a casual reader of the blog knows that Richard, UJ and I are on opposite sides of the fence on that point — I think we can all be proud of how politically engaged many Americans have been on the issues.  Although the media approach may be superficial, I think people are paying close attention to both the substance of the bill and to the process.  During the torturous path of the “health care reform” legislation, people have become knowledgeable about issues related to “the public option,” about certain insurance industry practices, about the role the CBO plays in estimating the budget and deficit impact of bills, about deals that have been cut to secure votes, about the Senate filibuster rules, the reconciliation procedure, and the role of the House Rules Committee, and about a number of other topics.

All of this is a good thing — a kind of civics refresher course that should make our body politic more attentive to important political issues and to the need for people to participate in the process.  We are already seeing this, through the various protests and the estimated 100,000 calls per hour that currently are overloading the congressional phone system capabilities.  I would guess that many of the people who are calling and advocating, pro and con, for the “health care reform” legislation didn’t vote in recent elections, or perhaps voted without a sufficient understanding of their candidate’s positions on issues like “health care reform.”

I expect that all of that will now change.  Although some pundits are predicting that the public interest in politics will wane, because some voters supposedly are disillusioned with President Obama, I think the opposite will be true.  If the “health care reform” legislation is enacted, the resulting law will have real consequences for people’s lives, their health care options, and their pocketbooks.  The impact of those real consequences will cause people to realize that, if they just sit on the sidelines, they have only themselves to blame if the consequences are not to their liking. 

American voters obviously disagree on “health care reform,” but I think we can all agree on one point — it is better to have our citizens  paying careful attention to what our elected representatives are doing and giving them an earful on what their constituents are thinking about the important issues of the day.  Democracy works best when voters are actively engaged in the process.