How Our Laws Are Made — Or Not

By John Isaacs

In textbooks and civic classes, we learn congressional procedures for approving legislation. There are multiple steps in the process — whether it is a tax bill, military budget, health care, financial reform, education policy or climate change.

However, as Congress becomes ever more dysfunctional, the civic class curriculum should be tossed out.

Take the annual Defense Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2018 to fund the military. The bill out of the Senate Appropriations Committee appropriates $643.7 billion, almost a $52 billion increase from the last fiscal year.

There are huge and expensive programs contained in the measure: a down-payment on nuclear weapons refurbishment program that the Congressional Budget Office estimates to cost $1.7 trillion in inflated dollars over the next three decades, paying for overseas wars, providing the troops with a pay increase, achieving the goal of a 355-ship Navy, training and more.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) released his draft version of the massive bill on November 21, a few days before Thanksgiving. His draft is 152 pages long. The accompanying explanation of the bill is 277 pages.

Civic texts suggest that the bill now goes 1) to the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, 2) on to the full Senate Appropriations Committee, and 3) then to the Senate floor for debate and amendments. 

Not in 2017.

Chairman Cochran is probably skipping step #1. And step #2. And step #3. The bill still sits in his outbox.

The next step: Chairman Cochran will take his version to meet with House conferees and begin negotiations to revise with an agreed-upon text.

For the moment, nothing is happening. Congressional leaders are working on an agreement to set a cap for military spending and domestic programs in the next fiscal year. Once that happens, Chairman Cochran, presumably but not necessarily with the ranking Democrat on the defense subcommittee, Dick Durbin of Illinois, will enter into direct negotiations with House appropriators to work out a deal.

Skipping the usual legislative procedure is becoming the norm. Earlier this year, the Senate twice considered a measure to terminate President Obama’s Affordable Health Care program without a single hearing.

Last week, the Senate approved a major tax cut bill, again without expert witnesses giving their views of the bill. Indeed, the Senate was revising the tax cut bill on the Senate floor almost to the moment of final vote with little input from anyone but Senate leadership — and lobbyists.

We need a new textbook: how our laws are no longer made.