Yet another man-made or manufactured disaster was avoided last week when Congress resolved its dispute over how much money to appropriate for disaster relief and whether to offset it.
That confrontation threatening a government shutdown was in the making since the moment House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) suggested in August that the money Congress would appropriate for East Coast earthquake and Hurricane Irene relief should be offset by cuts in other spending for the fiscal year that began this past Saturday.
After multiple assurances by Congressional leaders that there would be no shutdowns or threats of shutdown — after all, the contentious end game negotiations over the debt ceiling resulted in bipartisan agreement on spending levels for the year, making confrontation unnecessary — we had a real threat of shutdown over a tiny sum of money relative to the rest of the budget.
As I have pointed out before, and no doubt will again, this was not the only threat of shutdown we have ahead.
The agreement reached last week does not resolve appropriations issues for the year — if there were no intention of sparking controversy, or using the hostage-taking methods that have become commonplace in the House, there would be no reason to do more very short-term continuing resolutions.
Why not, because the dollar levels are set, do a longer-term continuing resolution and let it be superseded, if possible, by the regular order of appropriations bills as they pass both chambers and achieve compromise in a conference.
The fact that we are on a very short leash, with another deadline coming in mid-November, suggests another pattern, just like last year’s, of using the deadlines for leverage.
Are House Republicans likely to accede to the numbers on Interior-Environment appropriations by giving up on their dozens of riders designed to strangle the Environmental Protection Agency and undercut the bulk of existing environmental regulations? On the provisions they want to build in denying money to implement the Affordable Care Act or Dodd-Frank? Hardly.
To be sure, they might give in, as they did on offsets for disaster relief, if Democrats dig in and find a way, using the presidential bully pulpit, to make it clear that a shutdown, partial or more, would redound more against Republicans than Democrats. But I will be very surprised if we don’t see a lot of brinkmanship here in coming months.
On the disaster relief front, Cantor’s office released a study by the majority staff of the House Appropriations Committee saying that offsets on disaster relief are actually commonplace, if not routine.
I dug into their examples a bit, albeit with my limited expertise on what really goes down on the process for supplemental appropriations, and found the examples they used shaky at best.
Scott Lilly, the former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, has done his own more devastating analysis. Lilly, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, shows that after a decade of battles over how to pay for unforeseen emergencies, Congress in 1990 decided to create a process to pay for “dire emergencies,” as designated by the president and Congress, outside the normal appropriations setting.