Why the House May Skip a Budget

Speaker Paul Ryan wants to pass a spending blueprint, but appropriators are ready to just “deem” a funding number if needed.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Feb. 11, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

As House GOP lead­ers try to calm a rank-and-file budget re­bel­lion, Re­pub­lic­an ap­pro­pri­at­ors are ready to move ahead with their spend­ing bills—re­gard­less of wheth­er the House can pass a spend­ing blue­print.

Speak­er Paul Ry­an will try to smooth over his mem­bers’ budget angst at a private meet­ing Fri­day morn­ing. He has been work­ing to push a $1.070 tril­lion budget, as agreed to in an Oc­to­ber deal struck by both cham­bers of Con­gress and the White House.

Yet Ry­an is get­ting push­back from mem­bers who want to cut gov­ern­ment cof­fers lower. If the con­fer­ence can­not agree how to move ahead, House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers said he would like the cham­ber to em­ploy a rare and polit­ic­ally di­vis­ive pro­ced­ure: Deem a budget.

“I’m just anxious to get go­ing on mark­ing up these bills be­cause the year is so short,” he said. “The budget agree­ment of last year gives us that top num­ber and un­til I’m told oth­er­wise by an act of the House or whatever, that’s the num­ber that we have to mark up to.”

Deem­ing is a pro­ced­ure by which the House would write lan­guage in an­oth­er bill stat­ing that the budget is passed, without ac­tu­ally vot­ing on a stand-alone budget. So far, it ap­pears Ro­gers’s com­mit­tee mem­bers are back­ing him. Rep. Robert Ad­er­holt, chair­man of the ag­ri­cul­ture sub­com­mit­tee, said do­ing so is pos­sible, but would make it harder to agree with the Sen­ate about how much money each sub­com­mit­tee is al­loc­ated.

“We’d have to deem a budget,” Rep. Robert Ad­er­holt said. “But we have to pro­ceed on with ap­pro­pri­ations. It would cer­tainly be more dif­fi­cult to do and there would be a lot more un­cer­tainty in the pro­cess.”

Even among the House Free­dom Caucus, a chief in­stig­at­or in the budget dis­agree­ment, the idea of deem­ing a budget is be­come more real. Rep. Andy Har­ris, an ap­pro­pri­at­or and a mem­ber of the caucus, down­played the need for a spend­ing blue­print at all.

“We’d prefer a budget, but Con­gress works fine with or without it,” Har­ris said. “The Amer­ic­an people think of our ap­pro­pri­ations bills as budgets, so the only ques­tion is wheth­er we bring ap­pro­pri­ations bills to the floor un­der an open rule.”

Sim­il­arly, Rep. Tim Huel­skamp said his main con­cern is the spend­ing bills. He singled out the bill gov­ern­ing Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, where an­ti­abor­tion policy could be put in­to law. The bill is rarely taken up on its own be­cause Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats rarely agree about such policies.

“Giv­ing us a chance for once in six years to de­bate that, I think we can pass that at a lower level,” Huel­skamp said. “If you have to deem it to do that, maybe they will, but so far we’re a long ways from the end goal.”

In­deed, Ry­an told re­port­ers Thursday that the pro­cess has only just be­gun. He said he hopes his mem­bers can come to an agree­ment about how to move ahead, but that something must be passed be­fore the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess can start.

“Do I want the ap­pro­pri­ations com­mit­tee to pro­ceed? Yes. But in or­der for them to pro­ceed, we have to pass a bill au­thor­iz­ing their abil­ity to pro­ceed at that ap­pro­pri­ated num­ber,” he said. “The budget is typ­ic­ally where you pass that num­ber.”

Still, Ry­an has cause to be cau­tious. When House Re­pub­lic­ans were in the minor­ity, they de­rided Demo­crats’ at­tempt to deem a budget as “de­mon pass” or “scheme and deem.” Ry­an him­self, then rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the Budget Com­mit­tee, called it an “un­pre­ced­en­ted budget col­lapse.” House Re­pub­lic­ans have passed a budget every year since tak­ing power in 2012, and for Ry­an to fail to do so would be an em­bar­rass­ment.

Rep. Steve Womack, an ap­pro­pri­at­or, said that par­tic­u­larly in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion year, the man­euver and the dis­agree­ments in the party that could lead up to it would re­flect badly on Re­pub­lic­ans.

“I don’t think it’s wise, and as much as we like to rail against the pres­id­ent for what he sent us, it’s in my opin­ion a bit hy­po­crit­ic­al for us not even to meet one of our most ba­sic ob­lig­a­tions,” he said.

Still, head­ing in­to Fri­day’s con­fer­ence meet­ing, mem­bers op­posed to the Oc­to­ber budget were dug in. Rep. Dave Brat, a mem­ber of the free­dom caucus and the Budget Com­mit­tee, was in dis­be­lief Wed­nes­day when told that Ry­an wants to stick to the Oc­to­ber num­ber.

“That’s in dis­pute,” Brat said. “The pro­cess was de­scribed by lead­er­ship as a crap sand­wich and clean­ing the barn to get to that num­ber, so I don’t think any­one thinks it’s a good num­ber.”

In the Sen­ate, ap­pro­pri­at­ors are fo­cused on one of Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s top pri­or­it­ies: fund­ing the gov­ern­ment through “reg­u­lar or­der,” or 12 spend­ing bills, rather than through a massive om­ni­bus pack­age—a chal­lenge not met since 1994.

Yet some key mem­bers seem skep­tic­al. “Twelve bills is a lift,” ac­know­ledged Sen. Roy Blunt, an ap­pro­pri­at­or and mem­ber of the Sen­ate GOP lead­er­ship. “I cer­tainly would like to see us get more than half the bills done. Last year was the first time in six years we got all the bills out of com­mit­tee—and fairly early— so hope­fully we can get closer to our 12-bill goal this year.”

And when asked about the budget pro­cess, Sen. Chris­toph­er Coons didn’t emit any words, re­sort­ing to a “woo” as if he was tast­ing something spicy for the first time. “I don’t know how you would sum­mar­ize that com­ment on the re­cord,” he ad­ded.

Alex Rogers contributed to this article.
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