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Siegel: Historic, but are they improvements? A reply to Lauren Boebert

Elizabeth N. Siegel,
Guest Commentary
The Aspen Times

I do not agree with U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in just about virtually anything. In her recent guest commentary, she touts “historic improvements” to House rules because Congress is broken. On that point, however, I completely agree. My perspective comes from working for 17 years at NASA headquarters in the budget office, in legislative affairs, and in the legal office.

In the 1970s and ’80s, every federal-agency budget had to go through two processes: an authorization and an appropriation. The authorization committees in both the House and the Senate had staffs of experts on NASA’s space and aeronautics programs and held several hearings each spring to determine which programs should be funded. The House and Senate committees would hear from NASA administrators, scientists, and engineers, as well as outside experts in the relevant fields. 

The committee in each body would write an authorization bill, accompanied by a report, which explained their decisions. The bill would then be passed by the House and the Senate after debate and possible amendments. If the two bills were different, a conference committee with equal members from the House and Senate would meet to compromise and the new bill would go back to each body for a vote.



The authorization bill determined what programs within an agency should go forward (or killed) but did not actually provide the funding.

The second step was the appropriation process. Because constitutional authority for spending vests in the House, the process always starts there. A subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee would hold hearings, mark up a bill, and pass the bill and its accompanying report.




The bill would then be passed  by the full Appropriations Committee (perhaps with amendments) and then move to the floor of the House for a vote.  

The same process would repeat in the Senate. If they differed, the bills would go to a conference committee and be voted on again in each body.

For purposes of efficiency, the NASA appropriation was combined with several other small agencies. Large agencies, like Defense, were always handled separately. At the time, there were 12 appropriations bills for the entire government.

This was the so called “regular order” for funding all federal agencies. This was done annually until about 20 years ago, when these steps deteriorated to what we have had recently — continuing resolutions and giant omnibus bills which had to be passed on a deadline to keep the federal government running.

Bobert is right on this point: A 4,000-plus page appropriations bill covering the entire federal government is bad governance. The system needs constructive change.

But, will the new rules go back to a deliberative authorization/appropriation process?

The old system allowed many eyes to study and debate what each agency should be doing and at what cost. Agency experts and finance experts all had several chances to understand and influence these bills. Any senator or representative could closely follow this process, as all the bills and reports were public. These workings were largely bipartisan, as all committees and their staff were from both parties.

Hopefully, the new rule of “single subject” bills will force both bodies back to the “regular order.” That means a lot of bills, a lot of hearings, a lot of time, and less efficiency. 

More importantly, is there a temptation to engage in political gamesmanship, such as completely defunding certain agencies that the Republican party views as targets? We already see the signs — defund the IRS and FBI. That is not a budgetary process. It is pure politics.

I look forward to watching the House get to work and bring about these “improvements,” but my level of skepticism is very high. Can Boebert and her colleagues prove me wrong?

Elizabeth N. Siegel, an Aspen resident, has a bachelor of science degree from George Washington University in American Studies and a law degree from Catholic University. She worked for 17 years at NASA headquarters in the Budget Office, the Office of Legislative Affairs, and in the Office of the General Counsel. She also worked for Sen. Jack Schmitt as his ethics counsel when he was appointed as co-chair of the new Ethics Committee in the Senate shortly after Watergate.