As Boy Scouts we were told by our leaders that a large branch on a railroad track could derail an entire freight train. “So, don’t even think about it,” they warned. (We contented ourselves by flattening pennies on the tracks instead.)
That image came to mind in mid-September when a rump group of conservative House Republicans attempted to derail the six-month continuing appropriations resolution for the government. Enraged by the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans and the destruction at our consulate there and our embassy in Egypt, the Members called for stripping the CR of all aid to those two countries.
Because the CR had already been negotiated on a bipartisan basis between the House, Senate and White House, Republican leaders resisted reopening the package or allowing any floor amendments. However, as one of the conservatives put it, the retention of the money in the CR would make it easier to vote against it. And indeed, 70 Republicans and 21 Democrats did just that, while 165 Republicans and 164 Democrats voted in favor.
When a strong-willed bipartisan majority wants to get out of town quickly, return home to campaign and not let the prospect of government gridlock or lockdown threaten their re-election prospects, the resulting momentum is more powerful than a locomotive. The CR was on a fast track and would not be derailed.
While the six-month deal had been talked about for weeks, it still took some time to nail down the details. The agreement was made easier by an early consensus to peg spending to levels contained in last year’s Budget Control Act rather than the lower amounts in this year’s House budget resolution.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) introduced the measure on Sept. 10 and posted it online that evening. The bill ran just 11 pages single-spaced, compared with the 645 pages it referenced from last year’s three-part mini-bus and nine-part omnibus laws enacted in November and December. By simply referencing last year’s laws, there was no need to repeat how much money was being appropriated for each account. Put another way, this was a catchall money bill with no cash dollars — an immaculate exception that made the bill almost worry free. (“Look, Ma, no dough!”)
Because the micro-measure had not been reported by the Appropriations Committee, there was no accompanying report detailing what was being referenced at what costs. Rogers did post a brief summary of the measure on the committee website confirming that it continued funding at the current rate of operations of $1.047 trillion agreed to last year, plus a 0.6 percent across-the-board increase over the base rate, while still coming in at $26.6 billion below last year’s level. Got that?
Two days after the bill’s introduction, the House Rules Committee cleared a special rule for the CR that prohibited floor amendments and allowed just one hour of general debate. Called up the next day, the bill didn’t take the full hour. Only seven Members chose to speak, consuming just 40 minutes.
The conservatives’ rage over the Middle East tragedies spilled over into the Senate, where Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) threatened to hold up the CR until he got a vote on denying U.S. assistance to Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and any other country in which U.S. diplomatic facilities are attacked, trespassed on or breached. While Paul’s separate bill eventually got just 10 votes, it held up the final vote on the CR until the wee hours of Sept. 22, after running through the hoops to invoke cloture. Not surprisingly, at 2 a.m., debate on the CR was perfunctory: Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D- Hawaii), the lone speaker, uttered just four sentences, the third of which was: “This is an inefficient way to fund our federal government, but it is better than shutting it down next week.” The bill passed 62-30, with only 12 Republicans voting for it and one Democrat voting against.
The issue of aid to Egypt resurfaced one week later. On Sept. 28, while the House was in a pro forma session, the administration sent a letter to Congress indicating its intention to transfer $450 million in cash assistance to the government of Egypt pending a 15-day notice-and-wait period required by statute. The letter was referred to the Appropriations committees.
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, promptly issued a statement saying that, with the U.S.-Egypt relationship under such intense scrutiny, she was not convinced of the urgent need for the aid. Consequently, she said, she was placing a “hold” on the funds.
A House subcommittee chairman’s hold has no legal standing in House rules or law. However, Granger’s gauntlet was an effective ploy: it got the administration’s attention and a promise of further “conversations.” Although the earlier branch on the tracks did not derail the CR, the first branch’s watchful eye on the purse strings does make a difference.
Don Wolfensberger is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.