As sure as the return of football and pumpkin spice, we’re facing another annual fall tradition: a federal spending fight that’s not really about federal spending.

You may recall House Republicans vowing to force a showdown over the debt ceiling earlier this year. Instead, they rolled over, settling for what was at best a Pyrrhic victory. That set the stage for the next battle, this fall’s debate over the actual federal budget.

There’s a lot of right and wrong on both sides here. The good news is that, for the first time in quite a while, the Senate is actually voting on the appropriations bills themselves, rather than jamming them all together into one omnibus measure. That’s a step in the right direction, and they’re to be lauded for it; all too often in Washington, regular procedure has been completely ignored. However, they’re also engaging in typical parliamentary trickery by combining federal disaster spending and Ukraine aid, two completely unrelated issues, into one bill. While this is, sadly, a common practice in Washington, it’s an unfortunate one and should be avoided.

It would be nice if someone in Washington – really anyone at all, including Maine’s own Sen. Susan Collins, from the vantage point of her perch on the Appropriations Committee – took that principled position. Instead, we see a bitter fight brewing over which unrelated issue to tack on to Ukraine spending. A few diehard House Republicans, for instance, are insisting that they get a vote on impeaching President Biden before passing any spending bills. That demand is patently ridiculous, of course, in terms of both politics and policy, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy is wisely ignoring it.

McCarthy isn’t above tying Ukraine aid to other, unrelated issues, though; he’s simply chosen a different one: immigration. If he made an argument against all political hostage-taking, that approach would be laudable, and it’s one that would be hard to dismiss. Instead, he simply wants to take a different hostage, which is why he’s ultimately unlikely to be successful – and even if he wins, it will be another pointless victory.

This kind of bipartisan dysfunction is why these fiscal debates in Washington, D.C., never really lead to any kind of substantive reforms (nor meaningful debate). Rather than trying to actually fix the budget, House Republicans are trying to take advantage of it in a different way. Even if they ultimately win some concessions from the White House, it will only be in the form of additional funding for whatever problem, real or imagined, they want to throw money at, further deepening the country’s fiscal woes. Right now, they’re trying to have it both ways, by setting overall spending levels at a lower level than they earlier agreed to while simultaneously boosting spending on what they care about. That position is neither tenable nor honest.


Whatever the spending priority is, it’s important to have the debate in an open, honest and fair manner, rather than using parliamentary gimmicks to get their own way. If proponents of a particular issue were actually confident in their position, they’d be willing to have an open, honest debate on its own, rather than using every trick in the book to get it passed. Tying completely unrelated issues together, as both sides are in the current budget fight, inevitably leads to the same outcome every time: federal spending that is always on the rise, deepening the nation’s fiscal woes.

Unfortunately, neither party is much interested in having a serious debate over either federal spending as a whole or the budgetary process itself. Instead, their priority seems to be scoring political points while ducking responsibility. That’s another common outcome of linking unrelated issues together: Both sides can blame the other, while taking credit for a win and avoiding any real decisions. It may be politically convenient for everyone, but it’s not sustainable.

Rather than patting themselves on the back every time they fail to shoot themselves in the foot, members of Congress ought to feel ashamed. They should be looking for ways to fix the system and avoid these crises in the future, rather than stumbling haphazardly from one to another. That would be real leadership and real governing, but hardly anyone in Washington seems interested in either these days. It won’t be easy to fix, but if we don’t, we’re going to pay for it.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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