Washington Post: On federal appropriations, House Republicans flinch from another governing task

July 20, 2017
In The News

For hour after hour Wednesday, members of the House Appropriations Committee sat around tables inside a cramped room on Capitol Hill and dutifully processed amendments to bills that would spend a combined $200 billion to keep federal agencies open next year — a day after they learned those bills may never see the House floor intact.

Republican leaders announced Tuesday that they plan to bring a package of 2018 spending bills to a vote next week. It would probably be the last item passed in the chamber before members depart for a five-week summer recess.

But in the latest instance in which the House GOP has flinched from the basic responsibilities of governing, that package is set to include only four of the 12 yearly appropriations bills.

That has exposed tensions inside the GOP over how its leaders have approached the annual spending cycle. Since Republicans reclaimed the House in 2010, appropriations bills have been painstakingly negotiated with Democrats because, ultimately, President Barack Obama would have to sign them.

With President Trump’s election, however, many House Republicans were expecting a change. The move to pass only a handful of bills has, for now, dashed that expectation.

“There is an overwhelming frustration that this looks like this is the same pattern, that we are on the same spinning hamster wheel that we have been on for the last few years,” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, which has pushed to insert more GOP policy priorities in spending legislation.

Republicans have struggled for years to garner enough votes among their ranks to pass spending bills. Many members say the bills simply spend too much money; others shy away from funding agencies they do not support.

But the practical effect each year is to empower Democrats: In order to avert routine government shutdowns, Republicans have parleyed and ultimately agreed to spend at mutually negotiated levels and discard “poison pill” policy provisions.

Things might have been different this year. A cadre of Republican appropriators, led by Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), had pressed their colleagues in recent weeks to combine all 12 spending bills into a single $1 trillion “omnibus” and pass it before the summer recess in order to assert GOP policies — “to put our markers down on what we believe as Republicans in our priorities for our country,” Graves said Wednesday — and give the party a better negotiating posture ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.

The bills processed by the Appropriations Committee so far this year are calibrated to boost defense spending and cut other spending in keeping with Republican priorities. They also include GOP-favored changes such as curbs on the Internal Revenue Service, provisions to block the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law and numerous antiabortion restrictions.

Under orders from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), appropriators rushed to complete their bills — the final two were set to emerge from committee Wednesday — and party leaders polled lawmakers Monday on whether they wished to proceed with the combined bill.

The answer, according to several knowledgeable members, was a resounding “meh.” Appropriators and a handful of others were enthusiastic, but most rank-and-file members said they simply did not know enough about the bills and what amendments might be added.

“They don’t know what’s going to be the final product, so they’re not willing to commit to it, and leadership doesn’t want to take that chance with the last week,” said Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), a deputy whip.

So under the House GOP’s Plan B, the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Energy and Congress itself would be funded, along with a $1.6 billion down payment on the Mexican border wall proposed by Trump. The remainder of the federal bureaucracy would be left for another day — most likely for a hard-nosed bipartisan negotiation with Senate Democrats that will leave numerous GOP initiatives on the cutting-room floor.

“I think our hand has been weakened,” Graves said.

A Republican aide on the Appropriations Committee said members expect to complete the eight other bills in September: “All this work isn’t for naught.”

But members have their doubts, and Democrats pointed to the move as the latest evidence of the GOP’s inability to govern — alongside a moribund health-care bill and a House budget that is struggling to win support from enough Republicans.

“They hold the majority; they insist on this go-it-alone approach, and when they go it alone, they can’t produce anything,” said Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.), vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus. “They’re incapable of governing, doing basic things to keep the lights on for the country, and it shows that they’re very fractured.”

James T. Walsh, a former Republican House member who chaired several Appropriations subcommittees during the 1990s and early 2000s, recalled that it was not always so hard to pass spending bills in a GOP-controlled House.

“We used to get 375, 385 votes for these bills. It was a lot easier then, because there was something in it for members,” he said — referring to spending earmarks, which were abolished in 2010 after pay-for-play scandals.

“There’s always a lot of reasons to vote against a big bill,” Walsh said. “It’s easier to explain. But back in the old days when we had earmarks●. . . they could go home, and they could say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t crazy about this bill, but here’s what we got.’ They can’t do that anymore.”

Instead, Republican appropriators now find themselves in a cycle that Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), an appropriator, described as “deja vu all over again.”

“We’re just in some quicksand right now,” he said. “People are finding different reasons to be ‘no’ on things, and when you’re in the governing majority, you’ve got to get to ‘yes.’­ ”