Congressional leaders in both parties say they want to do something this year that hasn’t happened in decades — separately pass each of the 12 bills that comprise the federal appropriations process. Lawmakers have made a habit of funding the entire federal government in a massive year-end package, as happened last month.
Is this possible in a hyper-partisan election year? These same top legislators readily say they intend to use their positions to draw political and ideological distinctions between the two parties. They’ll need to muster consensus without seeming too moderate.
“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) acknowledged at a press conference held hours before Congress adjourned for the holidays.
The goal is a return to “regular order” — the procedural route that legislation theoretically takes on its way to the Oval Office. The process often gets tossed out the window at the first stirrings of political expediency. In recent years, this has been particularly true of appropriating federal dollars. The traditional committee activities have devolved into 11th-hour negotiations characterized by shutdown clocks and ultimatums.
The pitch to pass all 12 bills separately appeals to rank-and-file members because last-minute scrambling usually leaves all but the top echelon of lawmakers out of the loop. And critics complain that when Congress considers giant spending bills (this year’s ran to over 2,000 pages) up against tight deadlines, niche giveaways get signed into law before anyone notices.
Yet legislating usually takes on a different flavor in an election year, particularly one like 2016 where the White House and Senate are both up for grabs. Congressional procedure is as much about sending a political message as making policy. Ryan, for example, has promised not to wait for a GOP presidential nominee to begin crafting the party’s narrative for the 2016 election.
“We need to be a proposition party,” he said in a mid-December press conference. “I became speaker to give us a horizon to shoot for, to lift our gaze and show the American who we are and what we believe. That’s why our top goal in 2016 is to put together a bold, pro-growth agenda for the country.”
Ever the policy wonk, Ryan has said he wants the GOP conference to put forward some kind of tax reform proposal, perhaps to the international portion of the code. He also wants lawmakers to deliver a robust Republican alternative to Obamacare. If neither proposal makes it any further than House passage, so be it.
How this all happens remains an open question. Ryan has promised to open up the House amendment process in a bid to run a more bottom-up chamber than former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But that can be a dangerous strategy if the goal is to pass workable legislation. After all, said Harry Stein, the director of fiscal policy at the Center for American Progress, it was an amendment to restrict the display of the confederate flag on federal land that halted the House’s appropriations march last year.
“It will be hard to run an open amendment process on the House floor that does not lead to the inclusion of the kinds of ‘poison pill’ riders that will ensure Democrats won’t support the bill,” said Stein, who previously worked on defense appropriations for former Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). “That’s going to take a tremendous amount of discipline from everybody involved.”
“Let’s say the appropriations committee advances a clean bill the Democrats can support,” Stein continued by way of example, “but that a conservative member gets up and offers an amendment to defund Planned Parenthood as part of it. Are congressional Republicans really going to vote ‘no’ on that amendment? That would be hard. And then Democrats are off the bill, and you don’t have regular order.”
House hardliners have been some of the most vocal proponents of pursuing regular order on appropriations bills. But they have also not shied away from demanding that their leaders take Democrats and the White House to the mat over “poison pill” policy riders. These are the same members who cheered shutting down the government in an effort to repeal Obamacare in 2013. Many of them went on to form the House Freedom Caucus that caused Boehner so much trouble.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a founding member of the group, said in an early December interview that he would expect Ryan’s chamber to hold votes on the kinds of controversial amendments that tanked appropriations in Boehner’s House. But those votes shouldn’t derail everything. “I think it was an embarrassment, the way we allowed one little amendment to shut the whole process down,” he said, referring to the confederate flag-related amendments on last year’s Interior-Environment appropriations bill. “I think this is going to be a new day beginning in January.”
It’s a different story in the Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has little appetite for saber rattling on issues that his party has no hope of winning while President Obama sits in the White House. “Never take a hostage you’re not prepared to shoot,” he said in a notably wide-ranging year-end press conference. “And it seems to me a pretty obvious lesson from previous efforts to shut down the government or to default on the national debt, is that that’s a hostage you’re not going to shoot.”
But that doesn’t mean that he and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) each won’t make a political case for their party’s control of the Senate. “From time to time we will also point out the differences,” McConnell said, listing off last year’s efforts dismantle Obamacare and roll back Environmental Protection Agency waterway rules and the White House’s Clean Power Plan.
Democrats have their own message for voters. “We’re going to do something more on guns,” said Reid in his final media availability for the year. Democrats will also push for action on raising the minimum wage and equal pay for women.
The good news for advocates of the regular appropriations process is that there is a bipartisan, bicameral commitment to at least attempt that feat. Ryan, who has repeatedly said he hated the omnibus negotiations he inherited from Boehner, is on board. So is McConnell, who promised in a year-end press conference to spend significant floor time – what he calls the “coin of the realm” – on moving individual appropriations through the chamber. Senate Democrats’ leader in waiting, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), called that situation “fertile ground for bipartisan compromise.”
And top-line spending limits for the next fiscal cycle have already been set with this year’s October budget deal, removing one of the major obstacles that prevented regular appropriations from moving forward in 2015. Senate Democrats blocked all funding measures to protest restrictive spending limits before the budget agreement.
Reid, pleased with the deal to boost spending levels on the domestic and military side by $15 billion each next cycle, has even given Ryan a conditional promise to allow spending bills to come to the Senate floor next year. Of course, that doesn’t mean Democrats will necessarily allow those bills to pass. Still, it’s one step further than they were in last year.
“I hope that in the coming session, both sides can work together to restore the appropriations process to what it once was — a thoroughly bipartisan process focused on governing, not a partisan process focused on scoring political points,” Reid said in a statement submitted to the congressional record after Congress had adjourned.
There is, however, at least one other major challenge to working through all 12 spending bills: the congressional calendar. Lawmakers are gone for seven weeks over the summer, giving them even less time than last year to complete work on spending bills by the end of the fiscal year on Sep. 30.
In a nod to the fact that more time will probably be needed, legislative schedulers have already set Congress to be working for four weeks after the Nov. 8 election for a lame-duck session.