Hollow Promises: Speaker McCarthy and Appropriations
Josh Huder | February 3, 2023
As Kevin McCarthy brokered with conservatives to win the speakership, he made a series of promises to significantly revamp the budget and appropriations processes. Among them were commitments to pass a budget that balances in 10 years, consider and pass each appropriations bill individually (rather than in “minibus” or “omnibus” form), and provide members an opportunity to amend those bills under an open rule on the House floor. Keeping those promises would be a huge step toward restoring regular order to federal spending processes. It could even bode well for a more functional legislative body reflective of its entire membership. Unfortunately, a more “regular” process won’t fix broken budget politics.
The budget and appropriations processes are like dominoes. Before appropriations can fall into place, Congress needs to adopt a budget resolution outlining a topline discretionary spending number (known as a 302(a), after the section of the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act that created it). Without a topline, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees lack a binding “ceiling” to govern their work. The chambers can go it alone by “deeming” a number so the appropriations committees can begin their work. But without a House-Senate agreed topline, the appropriations process functionally stalls. Appropriations bills may pass either chamber, but they are little more than a placeholder until a budget deal is struck. In other words, the lack of a topline discretionary number leaves the appropriations process stuck in neutral and is one of the reasons government funding is almost always late.
If Speaker McCarthy keeps his promise to pass a budget that balances in 10 years, the House will find itself in this familiar situation. This hugely ambitious budget would require either historic entitlement reform, draconian cuts to all federal agencies, or effectively defunding almost all non-defense agencies. Those outcomes are essentially nonstarters for Senate Democrats and a number of moderate Republicans. Despite Republicans’ preference for cutting spending, the type of steep cuts required to meet their stated goal have lacked the votes to pass regardless of which party controls the chamber.
Further, it’s unclear if this Republican House can even adopt any budget resolution at all, much less at such draconian levels. The little-reported secret on Capitol Hill is that congressional budgets are effectively dead. It has been a decade since either party adopted a budget resolution that actively set appropriations levels for the fiscal year. 2013’s government shutdown (along with 2011’s more dangerous debt ceiling episode) presaged much of our current dysfunction. Despite the fact that budget resolutions only require a majority to pass (even in the Senate, where they are not subject to the filibuster) neither party has mustered the votes or political will to adopt one with an actual appropriations topline for quite some time. Instead, partisan majorities eager to enact major policy promises have adopted budgets solely to initiate the reconciliation process, without negotiating discretionary budget numbers. Polarization and partisanship aside, Congress’s core budgetary problem is that neither party can agree on the numbers amongst themselves.
Without a budget, the appropriations process will remain stuck in limbo. McCarthy will likely make good on his other promises to bring up appropriations bills individually and allow members to amend them. However, the inaction on that first budget domino means these bills are dead before they even see the light of day. The House may well process them through a more regular order, but that won’t avert the annual budget showdown where congressional leaders come together to negotiate an omnibus spending deal.
In the end, the filibuster, consensus across party lines, and longstanding committee routines help ensure most spending decisions remain bipartisan. As a result, radical factions attempting to force outcomes have enjoyed only limited success. This year, conservatives won huge concessions from the Speaker, but those concessions are unlikely to either deliver the spending cuts conservatives want or improve our broken budget process.