Here’s a paradox to ponder as lawmakers refill the Capitol this week: Congress is going to try propping up the budget for its own offices in order to prevent the premature total collapse of the budgeting process for every other part of the government.
In normal times, elected officials dare not be seen taking care of themselves ahead of the needs of others, which is why money for the legislative branch is customarily among the last items addressed in the annual appropriations process.
But in this extraordinary election year, when the rules of political physics have already been defied so many times in the presidential campaign, top Republicans have decided that embracing the unorthodox might be their only hope for avoiding more big-time embarrassment.
That’s why a $3.5 billion bill for the operation of the House and its support agencies will be debated on the House floor this week, very likely governed by ground rules that won’t permit much self-flagellation or cultural war-mongering by the membership.
GOP leaders are gambling they can muscle the legislation through, and thereby generate the impression they’ve put the budget process quickly back on track after their most public legislative failure during Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s seven months in charge: Just before Memorial Day an astonishing 305 members — or 70 percent of the House, including a majority of the Republican majority — voted to reject what should have been a routine spending bill for energy and water development programs. It was the first such outright defeat in 11 years for one of the annual appropriations bills.
The most palpable reason for the GOP opposition was the decision to include bipartisan language barring federal contractors from discriminating against their employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which would codify President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive order boosting the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.
David Hawkings' Whiteboard: What is Regular Order?
Dozens of socially conservative members could not abide the provision. Others, in both parties, argued that such divisive social policies would wrongly compound problems for a process beset with internal Republican discord about spending levels. And plenty were ready to vote “no” based on the bill’s price tag alone, which many Republicans viewed as too generous and many Democrats labeled too stingy.
What almost no lawmakers objected to, at least at the time, was the wide open process for amending legislation that is the “regular order” for appropriations bills, and that allowed the LGBT rights provision to get as far as it did. The combative conservatives who pushed out Speaker John A. Boehner last fall listed his tight control over the legislative mechanics among their biggest complaints, after all, and loosening things up was a central Ryan promise on assuming the job.
This week, though, Ryan will be counting on enough conservatives acquiescing in a return to something closer to Boehner’s approach — because the alternative is almost a total freeze in House legislative activity during the five months before lawmakers, with an already dismal collective reputation, stand for re-election.
Instead of spontaneity on the floor, Ryan's team has decreed that only amendments circulated in writing by Monday afternoon will have a chance to get aired, but the leadership-run Rules Committee will likely prevent debate on many of them.
Experimenting with a more tightly regulated process on the legislative branch package, instead of one of the other three bills ready for the floor, makes some sense. There are few ways to use the congressional budget as a petri dish for social policy test votes, on either the left or right.
(Language insisting the Library of Congress stick with “illegal alien” as the default search term for describing undocumented immigrants, instead of “noncitizens,” is about the most provocative provision in the bill at the moment). And the leaders believe they can sell a 2 percent increase for congressional overhead because it’s focused on safety improvements to the Hill’s aging campus.
Even if the bill makes it through, the victory looks to be short lived.
To restore credibility to revive regular order, Ryan will be compelled soon enough to permit votes on policy riders offered from both the right and the left — imperiling every subsequent spending package. (For example, Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who sponsored the LGBT amendment, said he plans to keep promoting it until it makes it onto a bill that passes).
Even if that knot gets untangled, House Republicans have done nothing to settle their own disagreement over whether the dozen annual bills should be allowed to add up to $30 billion (or about 3 percent) more than is being spent this year.
And the Senate — although it has passed three appropriations bills, with five more ready for the floor — is starting to run short on time.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made passing appropriations bills the centerpiece of his effort to turn the Senate into a do-something enterprise this election year. But senators return Monday for just 26 days before a seven-week summer break, and debate on the defense authorization measure is expected to consume much of the period.
By the time the Senate returns to the spending bills, McConnell may have a tough time maintaining his early success at holding the red-meat riders at bay. He’s persuaded the combative conservatives and endangered incumbents in his ranks to put budgetary expedience ahead of political posturing, but that becomes more difficult the closer the election gets.
And so the best predictions about the endgame have been the same since the year began:
Congress will return after Labor Day to confront an appropriations timetable that’s hopelessly behind. Minimal histrionics will precede the appearance of this fall’s legislative unicorn — a bipartisan agreement that quashes talk about a government shutdown on Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
Instead, Congress will produce a continuing resolution that keeps programs running in place until after Election Day.
And then both parties will do whatever they can to convince the electorate that they deserve the power to drive this year’s fiscal showdown solution — if not during the lame duck session climaxing before Christmas, then soon after the inauguration one month later.