Architect of the Capitol

Election Years and Smooth Spending Bills Don’t Mix

Hill leaders are hoping to pass all 12 appropriations measures separately this year. It's unlikely to happen.

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 monthsbe­fore 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.