Odds of Passing the Appropriations Bills Longer Than Those of the US Winning the World Cup

There’s no single reason for the failure to fulfill early expectations, and many observers were skeptical from the start, despite the more favorable conditions for passing the spending bills this year. The House has in fact passed five relatively non-controversial bills – Milcon/VA, Legislative Branch, Commerce/Justice/Science, Transportation/HUD, and Defense.  This week, the House is scheduled to bring Energy/Water to the floor, and move two more appropriations bills toward passage. House Appropriations Chair Harold Rogers says he still hopes to pass the remaining bills before September 30.  The Senate has yet to pass a single appropriations bill.

Not unlike winning an early match and raising the hopes of an entire nation, Congress typically tackles the relatively easy appropriations bills first, and sets aside the more difficult ones for later in the cycle. Although hope of passing all 12 bills had begun to fade, last month’s primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor seems to have halted whatever momentum there was in the House.  In addition to the distraction of electing a new Majority Leader, Cantor’s defeat seemed to energize the Tea Party wing of the House Republicans, many of whom already opposed the spending levels set in the bills.  The day after Cantor’s primary loss, the Speaker pulled the Agriculture Appropriations bill from the floor, and has yet to return it to the floor for a vote.

While the underlying obstacles that have prevented both chambers from passing appropriations bills are primarily policy driven, the rules regarding the House and Senate amendment processes, as well as leadership management of those rules has brought the process to a halt.

When House Republicans regained the majority after the 2010 elections, Speaker Boehner promised a return to “regular order” and greater transparency.  A fundamental element of that transparency would be an “open amendment” process for the annual appropriations bills, and the encouragement of rank and file members to use the appropriations process to achieve policy objectives.

What the Speaker perhaps didn’t realize was the degree to which hard line conservatives in his own party would use that process to insert a myriad of “poison pill” provisions that have undermined a number of the bills.  In a number of cases members have successfully attached highly controversial amendments, opposed by the leadership, to bills that they then proceeded to vote against on final passage.

In addition, in a gridlocked Congress that is unlikely to pass many bills at all, the appropriations bills are among the few vehicles available to members who wish to advance their legislative priorities. The Speaker’s pledge to allow open rules for appropriations bills will become even more of a challenge when and if the House moves on to the more controversial spending bills.  At that point, Speaker Boehner may need to decide between keeping his pledge of transparency and passing the bills.

On the Senate side, after a period of relative bipartisan cooperation, major differences between the parties emerged when Senate Appropriations Chair Barbara Mikulski sought to divide the 302(a) allocation among the 12 subcommittees.  The major sticking point was over how to divide the $4.3 billion in deficit reduction cuts among the non-defense bills.

After contentious debate, in May the full committee approved the 302(b) allocations, but did so along a 16-14 party line vote.  In June, with none of the individual bills having yet reached the Senate floor, Chairwoman Mikulski conceded that the best hope for passing the bills would be clusters of “minibuses” or perhaps even “maxi-buses”.  In late June Senate Majority Leader Reid finally brought the first three-bill minibus to the floor.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately attempted to add to the package a controversial amendment that would limit the power of EPA, leading Reid to pull the bill from the floor.

Contention between the parties over the amendment process in the Senate has stalled not only the appropriations measures, but virtually all major legislation in the Senate.  With Republicans attempting to use floor amendments to force Democrats to take politically difficult votes, and Reid trying to shield vulnerable incumbents ahead of the November elections, the usually slow moving Senate has come to a standstill.

With only a handful of legislative days remaining before the August recess, the Senate has failed to pass even a single spending bill.  Chairwoman Mikulski is now considering bringing a bundle of four bills to the floor before the recess – Labor/HHS, Energy/Water, Financial Services, and Interior/Environment – a package which she has named the “ugly stepsisters” – and comprises roughly half of non-defense discretionary spending.  Each of the bills has been a magnet for controversial amendments for years, including those related to abortion, the environment, the financial sector, as well as spending on the Affordable Care Act, the number one flashpoint leading up to this year’s elections.

It was probably unrealistic to hope that this might be the first year in two decades that Congress would pass the appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year.  But like supporting the US in this year’s World Cup, early on it seemed like there was a chance, however slight. Well, the American team has departed Brazil, and with the possible exception of Defense, we’re surely looking at yet another continuing resolution, probably through mid-November.

What happens next will depend in part on whether Republicans gain a majority in the Senate after the November elections, which at this point seems like a fairly good bet. At the risk of ending on a cheery note, keep in mind that the current debt ceiling suspension expires March 15, 2015.


Ken Gold is director of the Government Affairs Institute

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