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WASHINGTON – Congress is supposed to pass 12 spending bills — everything from highways to education — every year by Oct. 1, iron out the differences between the bills, then send them on to the president.
But since 1994, Congress has been unable to pass all of its spending bills individually on time by Oct. 1. Instead, it has had to either pass patchwork bills or extensions of prior spending bills in order to keep the government operating. In the case of last fall, even that didn't happen. The government shut down for almost three weeks.
"If Congress does nothing in the course of a year, they must appropriate money to enact the federal budget," said Kenneth Gold of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. "That's their most basic function, and they are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfill that."
"They can't get tax reform done, they can't get immigration reform done, but this is actually the one thing they know every year that they're going to have to do," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a taxpayer watchdog. "And so it's inexcusable they don't get it done."
Critics say the breakdown in the spending process reflects the larger dysfunction in the House. Where once lawmakers were bound to their districts and regional priorities, they're now increasingly bound to their parties, including the most extreme factions of those parties.
Political spin, not work
What's replaced collaboration is a political message machine, light on legislation. The 2011-2012 House passed the fewest number of bills in at least 60 years.
"I now consider the House to be a fact-free zone," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."
"All you get is political spin, and it's just very sad for a great legislative body," he said.
Instead of passing its individual spending bills on time, Congress each year since 1994 has kept the government operating either through a bulk bill that includes money for a variety of programs or through a continuing resolution — an extension of the prior year's spending bills. It's known as a CR on Capitol Hill.
"I've always thought of a CR as kind of the white flag of surrender. When all you could do is pass a CR, you're just saying, 'We can't do our job anymore,' " said Steve Bell, a former congressional staffer who now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Passing an extension of last year's spending has become an increasingly common practice. In fiscal 2012, for example, Congress passed five separate continuing resolutions. In fiscal 2011, it passed eight.
By doing so, critics say, Congress is essentially ceding its authority to determine how federal dollars are spent. Instead of serving as a steward of taxpayer dollars, members of Congress have essentially thrown up their hands, slashed dollars indiscriminately or just relied on older spending measures — the equivalent of submitting the same term paper time after time.
Fewer bills are passed
Comparing numbers of bills passed is tricky because no two bills are alike and a single omnibus bill can include several pieces of legislation. But the number of bills passed in both chambers is historically low. In the 2011-2012 Congress, the House passed 561 bills and the Senate 364. Fifty years earlier, both chambers passed nearly 2,000 bills.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, likes to say that the Senate won't pass anything. But even some Republicans point fingers at the House and say the number of bills approved is more about politics than policy, such as the repeated votes on repealing Obamacare.
"The House passes a lot of stuff, but a lot of the stuff they're passing is messaging legislation," said Steve LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio who retired in 2012 because of his frustration with congressional paralysis. Much of what they pass, he said, "is not a serious legislative effort."