Why Election Years and Smooth Spending Bills Don’t Mix

Hill leaders are hoping to pass all 12 appropriations measures separately this year. Good luck with that.

House Speaker Paul Ryan
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Jan. 5, 2016, 8 p.m.

Con­gress is head­ing back to Wash­ing­ton with a big goal in mind: passing all 12 ap­pro­pri­ations bills on time. But as with all New Year’s res­ol­u­tions, this is go­ing to be a hard one to keep.

Mem­bers of Con­gress now find them­selves in the true open­ing stages of the 2016 elec­tion. Pres­id­en­tial years tend to suck the air out of Wash­ing­ton, leav­ing mem­bers to keep the gov­ern­ment’s doors open and lights on, while real polit­ic­al battles are fought in Iowa and New Hamp­shire.

But key mem­bers of both parties say they won’t be mere win­dow dress­ing to the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion this year, ex­press­ing con­fid­ence in both cham­bers that while their can­did­ates square off in de­bates and at bal­lot boxes, they can pass 12 new ap­pro­pri­ations bills that will fund the gov­ern­ment and, po­ten­tially, make ma­jor changes to the way the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment op­er­ates and spends its money.

“This hasn’t been done since 1994, but it’s how Con­gress ought to op­er­ate so that we can bet­ter pro­tect the tax­pay­er dol­lars and make our place the true rep­res­ent­at­ive body that it is,” House Speak­er Paul Ry­an said in Decem­ber.

That’s not a small goal. Ap­pro­pri­ations bills, which fund everything from the mil­it­ary to re­search for Alzheimer’s to Con­gress’s own op­er­a­tions, are com­plex, time-con­sum­ing, and of­ten polit­ic­ally con­ten­tious.

But after years of passing massive om­ni­bus spend­ing bills, of­ten at the last minute, like the $1.1 tril­lion pack­age they passed last month, Ry­an and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell say they’re up to the task. Demo­crats have said that they are on board as well, giv­ing Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers some hope.

Mark Mur­ray, a former House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee staffer and now the vice pres­id­ent of Corner­stone Gov­ern­ment Af­fairs, is skep­tic­al. “This is, after all, the sea­son of op­tim­ism, the be­gin­ning of the year, good­will and so forth,” Mur­ray said Tues­day. Like a Jan. 1 vow to hit the gym, Con­gress’s cur­rent op­tim­ism may not last through the year. Here are some of the ma­jor hurdles they’ll face in the pro­cess.

1. It hasn’t been done in more than 20 years. Con­gress hasn’t passed all 12 ap­pro­pri­ations spend­ing bills through both the House and Sen­ate since 1994, when Demo­crats con­trolled both cham­bers, Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton was in the White House, and Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham’s be­loved flip phones were ad­vanced tech­no­logy.

Since then, Con­gress has typ­ic­ally been able to agree to five or six ap­pro­pri­ations bills on less con­ten­tious is­sues, like fund­ing the De­fense De­part­ment, lump­ing the rest of the gov­ern­ment’s fund­ing in­to a last-minute om­ni­bus pack­age. At worst, as has been the case in re­cent Con­gresses, they haven’t passed any.

2. “Prob­lem child” ap­pro­pri­ations bills. Every year, mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate Ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tees find them­selves at log­ger­heads over a few of the most con­tro­ver­sial bills—“prob­lem child” bills, as Mur­ray, calls them. These in­clude fund­ing bills for the Labor De­part­ment and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment; the State De­part­ment and for­eign op­er­a­tions; the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment; and the IRS and the White House (which fall un­der the um­brella of the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices sub­com­mit­tee).

Those bills are dif­fi­cult to pass through one cham­ber, much less both of them, in an av­er­age year (see point 1, above). But in a pres­id­en­tial-elec­tion year fo­cused on the eco­nomy and tax­a­tion, the fight against IS­IS, im­mig­ra­tion, and refugees from Syr­ia, not to men­tion health care, all of these bills will be breed­ing grounds for polit­ic­al fights.

3. Obama­care. House Re­pub­lic­ans spent their first week of 2016 in Wash­ing­ton send­ing a full re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act to Pres­id­ent Obama’s desk, a move that will cer­tainly earn a pres­id­en­tial veto but has non­ethe­less been a ma­jor ideo­lo­gic­al vic­tory for the Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress. Giv­en Con­gress’s re­cent tend­ency to pass massive om­ni­bus bills just be­fore a dead­line for a gov­ern­ment shut­down, Re­pub­lic­ans have largely left the health care law alone in the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess, pro­pos­ing only changes that have some bi­par­tis­an sup­port.

But if mem­bers are giv­en the op­por­tun­ity to pass a sep­ar­ate Labor/Health and Hu­man Ser­vices bill this year, one that could be ve­toed without threat­en­ing a shut­down, ap­pro­pri­ations-watch­ers ex­pect that tak­ing down at least some parts of Obama­care in the pro­cess could be a top pri­or­ity for the GOP. That’s cer­tainly go­ing to raise some feath­ers among Demo­crats. And while Re­pub­lic­ans could have the num­bers to get an Obama­care re­peal or change through com­mit­tee, and po­ten­tially through the House, they’ll need to get five Demo­crat­ic votes in the Sen­ate to send that bill any­where.

4. It’s 2016, stu­pid! On the one hand, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers say they won’t let the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion keep them from do­ing their own work and, in fact, hope to act to cre­ate a policy plat­form for their even­tu­al nom­in­ee and the party writ large to run on in Novem­ber. But on the oth­er hand, there’s a lot more to the 2016 elec­tion than just the pres­id­en­tial race.

Re­pub­lic­ans have five can­did­ates seek­ing reelec­tion to the Sen­ate in states that Obama won twice. And four of them already have pretty ser­i­ous Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion, while Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania awaits the out­come of a three-way primary to op­pose him in Novem­ber. For these mem­bers and vul­ner­able Re­pub­lic­ans in the House, passing all 12 ap­pro­pri­ations bills is a double-edged sword. Ap­pro­pri­ations bills are typ­ic­ally amend­able, giv­ing mem­bers an op­por­tun­ity to put up an amend­ment or sev­er­al that could help out back home be­fore the elec­tion, but that sets up vul­ner­able mem­bers for a lot of tough votes on con­tro­ver­sial amend­ments offered by oth­er mem­bers, in­clud­ing any­thing from abor­tion rights to im­mig­ra­tion to gun con­trol.

5. Obama’s new gun reg­u­la­tions. Speak­ing of gun con­trol, Obama threw a bit of a wrench in the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess on Tues­day by an­noun­cing sev­er­al new ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders re­lated to guns. Al­though the pres­id­ent said that he was mov­ing to cir­cum­vent Con­gress un­til the le­gis­lat­ive branch “gets on board with com­mon-sense gun-safety meas­ures,” he can’t quite cir­cum­vent it en­tirely. Even be­fore Obama’s an­nounce­ment on Tues­day, Re­pub­lic­ans were already point­ing to the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess as a po­ten­tial place to shut down the new ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders.

Mem­bers of Con­gress can’t tech­nic­ally le­gis­late through ap­pro­pri­ations bills, but they can fund—or more likely in this case, de­fund—vari­ous de­part­ments or ac­tions. And if Obama hopes to hire more people to con­duct back­ground checks and build up the Bur­eau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Fire­arms, and Ex­plos­ives, he’ll likely need more money from Con­gress to do it.

6. The House Free­dom Caucus. Many mem­bers of the con­ser­vat­ive House group have yet to see a fed­er­al spend­ing bill they liked. And while Re­pub­lic­ans will have great­er con­trol over the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess by start­ing with all 12 bills early than in a dead­line-driv­en mad dash to file an om­ni­bus, it’s un­likely that Ry­an can count on the votes of Free­dom Caucus mem­bers for any of the ap­pro­pri­ations bills.

Typ­ic­ally, former House Speak­er John Boehner re­lied on a co­ali­tion of es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats to pass spend­ing bills, a tac­tic Ry­an had to use at the end of 2015, when 95 of his mem­bers bailed on the fi­nal om­ni­bus pack­age. It’s un­likely that the num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an de­fect­ors will be that high on a single ap­pro­pri­ations bill; many of the so-called “hope yes, vote no” caucus ob­jec­ted to the mere size of the om­ni­bus pack­age and the lack of time to prop­erly go through it.

But with the stakes much lower for a single ap­pro­pri­ations bill on the floor months be­fore the gov­ern­ment’s fund­ing runs out, it’s un­clear how much pres­sure either Re­pub­lic­ans or Demo­crats will feel to make up for the “nays” from Free­dom Caucus mem­bers and oth­er spend­ing-minded Re­pub­lic­ans.

7. Run­ning out of time. Al­though both lead­ers have prom­ised floor time for ap­pro­pri­ations bills and there isn’t much else on the con­gres­sion­al to-do list for 2016, the timeline is still tight. Mem­bers hope to have all 12 bills done, at least in the House, be­fore the con­ven­tions be­gin in Ju­ly and mem­bers de­part for their Au­gust re­cess, Mur­ray said. That means that ap­pro­pri­at­ors will be­gin hold­ing hear­ings on the bills later this month, with plans to be­gin get­ting them on the House floor in March, he ad­ded. That timeline leaves very little room for er­ror and any ma­jor fights could cause ma­jor schedul­ing is­sues.

8. Syr­i­an refugees and oth­er “pois­on-pill” riders. As with the Af­ford­able Care Act, Re­pub­lic­ans are ex­pec­ted to at least at­tempt to at­tach lan­guage to one or more of the ap­pro­pri­ations bills deal­ing with Syr­i­an refugees, a ma­jor is­sue for the party that was left un­re­solved at the end of 2015 and could cause ser­i­ous head­aches for Demo­crats. Oth­er so-called “pois­on-pill” riders could in­clude lan­guage on abor­tion rights, cam­paign fin­ance meas­ures sup­por­ted by Mc­Con­nell that failed to make it in­to the 2015 om­ni­bus bill, ad­di­tion­al gun-con­trol meas­ures sup­por­ted by Demo­crats, and oth­ers. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has also in­dic­ated he may try to wrangle an­oth­er con­tro­ver­sial is­sue in­to the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess: killing the long-con­tested nuc­le­ar-waste site at Yucca Moun­tain in Nevada once and for all.

9. The budget res­ol­u­tion. Al­though Con­gress passed a two-year budget deal last year, they’ll still have to wait on a budget re­quest from Obama, ex­pec­ted to come down some­time in Feb­ru­ary, and pass budget res­ol­u­tions of their own. Last year’s budget deal makes it un­likely that there will be ma­jor fights over the spend­ing caps agreed to in 2015, but up­sets are still pos­sible and the tim­ing of a fi­nal res­ol­u­tion could fur­ther hamper ap­pro­pri­at­ors’ already tough timeline.

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