WASHINGTON (MNI) - Of the many things for which Congress is frequently rebuked for, critics often seize on its persistent lack of consistency and of proportion.
Both of those deficiencies were on full display this week as Congress struggled to deal with fiscal year 2015 spending bills and an $85 billion tax extenders package.
The Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday approved, on a 16-to-14 party-line vote, allocations for the 12 individual spending bills for FY2015. These allocations include $521 billion for defense programs and $492 billion non-defense programs.
All Democrats supported the allocations and all Republicans opposed them.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski said the 12 bills will allocate $1.014 trillion "which is the precise level agreed to in the Murray/Ryan Bipartisan Act with a bipartisan vote last December."
She was referring to the budget agreement crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray.
The Murray-Ryan agreement set discretionary spending levels for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The FY2015 discretionary spending level is $1.014 trillion. Under the Murray-Ryan agreement for FY2015, $521.3 billion is allocated for defense programs and $492.4 billion is allocated for non-defense discretionary programs.
During the Appropriations Committee meeting, Mikulski acknowledged there was "some small disagreement" between Democrats and Republicans on specific allocations in several of the bills and even the overall number. But she said she's hopeful this year's appropriations process will unfold smoothly.
Republicans on the Appropriations Committee accused Mikulski of using an assortment of budget gimmicks to report the 12 bills in a way that they do not cumulatively exceed the $1.104 trillion ceiling.
"Under these allocations, specific bills would circumvent, we believe, the caps while relying on budgetary mechanisms that would, in effect, allow for additional spending beyond the Murray-Ryan limits," Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations panel, said Thursday.
Republicans cited three budget maneuvers that they said violated the "spirit" of the Ryan-Murray accord and allowed for about $4 billion in additional spending for FY2015. One would be to use some unneeded funds from the Afghanistan war for domestic purposes.
"That looks like we're trying to avoid marking up to the number we agreed to," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican member of the committee, referring to the budget gimmicks.
While budget experts believe the GOP senators made good points about Mikulski's aggressive use of budget maneuvers to come in at the discretionary spending ceiling, they also point out that both Democratic and Republican senators were at that exact same time supporting an $85 billion tax extenders package that was not offset - and Republicans are also backing an amendment that would suspend the medical device tax which would cost the federal budget $30 billion over a decade.
Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, said budget action this week underscores many of the current weaknesses of American fiscal policy, especially the intense congressional focus on cutting the relatively small discretionary budget while ignoring reforms of the tax code and entitlement programs.
"This incident shows how dysfunctional our budget process has become. Congress is spending long hours haggling over the discretionary budget, which is not where our fiscal problem is, while ignoring those areas where the real money is: taxes and entitlements," Bixby said.
The 2015 fiscal year begins October 1.
Congress did not approve its fiscal year 2014 spending bills until mid-January of 2015, more than three months into the fiscal year. And it was accomplished only after a 16-day government shutdown and required jamming all of the 12 spending bills into one omnibus package.
Both Mikulski and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers have said they want a more orderly appropriations process this year.
Rogers has said he wants his panel to approve all 12 of the spending bills before the July 4 recess and would like the full House to approve all 12 of the FY2015 spending bills before the August recess.
Mikulski has not set a specific goal for passing the bills out of her committee, but noted on Thursday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has "committed to providing (Senate) floor time in both June and July so all members will have an opportunity to be heard."
Both Rogers and Mikulski have said they would prefer the House and Senate consider each of the 12 spending bills individually, but it's unclear if this is possible given the truncated legislative schedule during an election year.
In recent years, Congress has placed most of the 12 appropriations bills in an omnibus spending package or two. Lawmakers often decry this method of considering spending bills but this approach tends to continue each year.
The last time Congress approved all of its individual spending bills before the October 1 start of the fiscal year was in 1994.