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Analysis: Congress Aims to Fix Busted Budgeting

By Andrew Taylor

WASHINGTON -- In President Ronald Reagan's final State of the Union address, he slammed Congress for sending him a 14-pound, 1,053-page single spending bill. He warned lawmakers not to try his patience by doing it again.

"And if you do, I will not sign it," Reagan said.

Guess what? It worked.

In 1988, Congress passed 13 separate spending bills by the rarely met Oct. 1 deadline.

Twenty-six years later, an even larger bill of the type Reagan decried was seen as a triumph as it sped through Congress last week.

That's evidence of just how badly the annual appropriations process -- the little-watched but extremely important means by which Congress sets the government's annual spending priorities -- has gone off the rails.

The omnibus bill -- really 12 bills wrapped into one - was "rushed to passage without amendment or meaningful review," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "The American people have no real ability to know what's in it or hold us, their elected representatives, accountable."

The question now is whether today's bitterly divided, dysfunctional Congress can rise to the occasion, as did the Congress that Reagan chastened.

It's hardly a sure thing.

Last week's 1,582-page bill was negotiated in the back rooms of the Capitol by only a few. It was presented to the House and Senate as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Less than a decade ago, all 12 bills came to the full House and Senate for debate and amendments, and were then hashed out in conference committees before being signed by President George W. Bush.

But last year the bills became entangled in a broader fight over spending. Not a single appropriations bill passed the Senate before the omnibus measure.

Republicans filibustered the only plan that Democrats tried to bring up, because it contained spending levels well above the cuts imposed by the 2011 budget deal.

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