Congressional leaders have been crowing about a return to regular order in the appropriations process, but the emphasis on process has come at a cost to House Republicans—that is, almost no significant policy victories, so far.
The compromise bill funding Energy and Water, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and the legislative branch drops virtually all high-profile riders—and any other controversial policies—that were written into the original House legislation. That does not augur well for the House GOP’s chances of achieving other sought-after goals, such as measures to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and to build a wall at the southern border.
The reason is simple: House Republicans are on an island. Senate Republicans have joined with Senate and House Democrats to oppose the policy riders that House leaders routinely attach to their bills to win over conservative support, a House GOP leadership aide said.
“It’s definitely a different negotiating position than we had in the omnibus,” the aide said. “From a global perspective, we House Republicans probably have a weaker hand in getting what we want.”
That has not gone unnoticed by conservatives. Advocates are already panning the compromise bill. Nick Loris, a Heritage Foundation environmental expert, said the legislation sets a low bar for other 2019 funding bills.
“The general fact that this was relatively policy-rider-free doesn’t bode well for, not only this minibus, but if there [are] others as well,” Loris said. “There’s no fortitude to actually try to get some substantive policy reform that could have much more long-term impact in terms of reining in regulators.”
Loris said the riders could provide a counterweight to what he called irresponsible increases to spending for fiscal 2019, a result of a bipartisan budget deal brokered earlier this year. The minibus bumps up spending by nearly $1.5 billion for the Energy and Water Development section.
House Republicans, however, contend this outcome was not for a lack of trying.
A repeal of the Obama-era Clean Water Rule, the legally embattled regulation known as Waters of the United States, fell to the wayside once again. House Republicans also failed to secure money to jump-start the arbitration process for the Yucca Mountain repository. That process stalled years ago, even though Yucca remains the country’s only legal storage facility for nuclear waste.
And a rider that would have nixed an Oregon court decision to divert water from hydroelectric dams to try to help boost salmon populations in the region also missed the cut.
The absence of that language is especially significant for House Republicans. Just hours before lawmakers announced the deal, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers blasted the court decision, which overruled a 2014 federal conservation plan, at a Natural Resources Committee field hearing in her home state of Washington.
“Why is this judge ignoring science? Why is this judge ignoring years of work on a biological opinion to satisfy the court demands?” said Rodgers, who is in a tough reelection battle. “The fact of the matter is that dams and fish coexist.”
Judge Michael Simon, who sits on the Oregon District Court, mandated in 2016 that hydroelectric dam operators increase spill—the amount of water that flows over the dam and bypasses turbines—in order to better safeguard salmon spawning. A nonbinding “explanatory statement” linked to the minibus, meanwhile, criticized the court decision, but that amounted to little more than a fig leaf.
“Many conferees have grave concerns about judicial interference in the operation of the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers,” the statement says. “There was no specific scientific backing cited for this decision. Spilling at this increased level can threaten the reliability of the federal power and transmission systems and result in impacts to transportation and barging systems, flood-control capabilities, and irrigation systems.”
Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Democratic leadership who also represents Washington, applauded the absence of a policy rider on the issue. “Nothing in this report, and nothing in the bill itself, would insert Congress or partisan politics into the process or would interfere with the court-mandated comprehensive review that everyone can participate in and accounts for all uses of our river system,” she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, House and Senate appropriators convene Thursday for conference meetings on the next two minibuses in the pipeline, one of which is led by the perennially controversial Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department account. The Senate version of that legislation includes more environmental riders, which provide a potential path for bicameral compromise.
In that bill, Senate lawmakers agreed to permanently declare biomass carbon-neutral. The legislation also includes a rider to permanently prevent regulation of livestock emissions under the Clean Air Act.
Another bill covering health care, however, could prove more controversial. House Republicans are seeking language allowing doctors to sue if they are forced to perform abortions, a ban on research using fetal tissue, and a measure allowing faith-based adoption agencies to decline to place children with gay couples.
That bill is paired with another funding bill for the Defense Department, so leaders are hoping that the sting from the lack of policy wins will be offset by an increase in military spending.
Yet the calendar is getting tight, and the amount of time it took to finish the first package—widely regarded as the easiest of the spending bills—may portend more delays. The House has only one full legislative week left after this one before the Sept. 30 deadline.
Already, House leaders are beginning to talk about a continuing resolution to carry the bill funding the Homeland Security Department into the lame-duck session, putting off any decision about funding a border wall for another day.