The view from inside …

By Cathy Travis, 25 year veteran of Capitol Hill

Author, Constitution Translated for Kids

   One certainty in the babble after the government shutdown/brink of default is that citizens largely have no idea how Congress is supposed to work … the process of putting laws together.  Congress’ most basic job is to choose what to spend money on, and to pay those bills.

   The founders wanted the path to a law – to government spending – to be difficult and multi-tiered. 

   Congress is two parts:  a House of Representatives and a Senate.  House members serve for two years and represent populations in their states, as carved out by the state legislature.  Senators serve for six years and represent the entire state.

   There are two components for spending money:

    * permission to spend it (through the 18 authorization committees) and

    * actually spending it, (through the appropriations committee, which has 12 subcommittees, two of which are for defense spending).


   A bill must be authorized before it can be funded.  Bills begin in a subcommittee, where members hear testimony, and they improve on it.  Then they pass it along to the full committee, where they improve on it.

   Then it goes to the House Floor where members can amend it and vote on it.

   This is going on in the authorizing committees and appropriations committees in the House, largely at the same time.  This – THIS – is where the bulk of negotiations among members of Congress are conducted, where lobbyists have the broadest success.

   Meanwhile, the entire two-tier process is going on simultaneously in the Senate … with staffers on the appropriating committees and appropriations subcommittees staying in touch on what’s in bills from each body.

   Once bills have been passed out of the House and the Senate (they are never the same bill language), leaders in both chambers will appoint members to a “conference committee” that resolves the differences in bill language.  Identical bills are sent to both the House and the Senate for a final vote on it.

   When the final bill is passed in both House and Senate, it goes to the president for veto or signature.

   All appropriations bills are supposed to be passed by Oct 1 each year.  One of the things congressional staff/congressional correspondents refer to in keeping up with how many appropriations bills are finished is the “Status of Appropriations.”

   This is how it is supposed to look, a grid of who did what on each individual appropriations bill:

   Here is what it looks like now:

   The Hill community knows that all that white space at the top and the far right of the page represents a remarkable fiasco in how this Congress has failed at the most fundamental thing Congress is instructed to do by the Constitution.

   Already this is long and boring.  LOTS more nuance, but as an overview … that’s how Congress works.  Supposed to work.

   It’s messed up in the House because hyper-partisan redistricting heavily favors electing the most beyond-conservative members, which skews regular order and compromise in the House. 

   In the Senate, the self-imposed 60 vote rule to pass spending bills is undemocratic.  The nation’s Founders believed in majority rule.  To review, a majority is 51 in the 100-member Senate. Their 60-vote rule is not a constitutional requirement.  The Senate made that up.

   Of the two, the only body that could fix itself is the Senate.  The redistricting scheme now in place is there till 2021 … so it’s hard to see a way through the mess of the House of Representatives.

   Americans hear people talk about negotiating, but it is largely a tactic in the current climate, not an actual negotiation.  Negotiations include people of opposite opinions and have results over time.  I expect Congress will continue passing short term extensions on the eve of default for the foreseeable future.

   The Founders would have been awfully disappointed … but they would have been blown away by the 20 women in the Senate who got together to futz the way through this brink-of-default deal.    They mighta been most surprised that women ever got the right to vote … but they would have loved the everybody-sit-together and figure-it-out ethos of patriots.

   Real patriots, in the tradition of our nation’s Founding Fathers.