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
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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