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Every December, Why All the Drama?

Some Republicans are optimistic Ryan's leadership will help avoid the end-of-year crunch in the future. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Every December brings anxieties about Congress finishing its work in time to avert a government shutdown. Christmas cheer is overshadowed by partisan finger pointing; lawmakers have months to come to an agreement on spending priorities and policy riders, but don't.  

Before they headed home this past weekend, many rank-and-file lawmakers paused to consider why they find themselves in a deadline rush every December and whether it will ever be different. Speaker Paul D. Ryan caught people by surprise when he said the day before the government's funding expired that Dec. 11 was an "arbitrary" goalpost.  

"Look," the Wisconsin Republican said at his weekly news conference. "Deadlines come and deadlines go. We want to make sure that we get it right."  

Ryan Defends Short-Term CR

Congress bought some time on Dec. 11 when it passing a five-day continuing resolution to keep federal operations afloat. However, Ryan's comments marked the first time in recent memory a top House Republican publicly shrugged at the reality that negotiations had gone that far down to the wire.  

One reporter questioned whether Ryan's attitude was one of "nonchalance." But the new speaker wasn't saying anything most people in the Capitol didn't already know.  

In the House, rank-and-file lawmakers passed the short-term CR by voice vote on Dec. 11 and shortly thereafter headed home for the weekend, leaving senior negotiators and their staff to finish the year-end omnibus appropriations talks.  

Rolling spending measures into one massive package, or "omnibus," has likely exacerbated the end-of-the-year crunch. "Since 2001, only about a quarter of those appropriations bills have been handled as stand-alone measures," explained Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. The 12th month of every year is a time for heartburn, headaches and hand wringing — and then everything works out, or at least enough so that members can go home before Christmas.  

"There's a lot at stake," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., the chairman of the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee. "We’re moving forward and then [Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi stopped it, stop talking. Because she wants more leverage. And her leverage is time, to force it so that there’s no time and you're on the verge of a shutdown and everything else and she thinks she has more leverage.  

"Do I blame her? No," he continued. "Do I like it? Absolutely not. I wish she would just roll over, just like she wishes we would roll over."  

Zero-sum games are just as much a part of spending spill negotiations as they are a part of talks between athletes and sports teams or between striking laborers and management, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a longtime observer of Congress.  

"It's not just procrastination," he said.  "Everybody believes that in the end, you've got more leverage. And of course, it’s not necessarily the case that both sides have more leverage ... it's the perception."  What makes it worse in Congress, he added, is partisan dysfunction.  

But former state legislators laughed off the idea that stalling is a condition unique to Congress.  

"When I was in the legislature, I used to say about the budget: 'Think of it as childbirth,'" said House Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Dent, R-Pa. "'It’s painful. Sometimes you’re a little early, sometimes you’re a little late, sometimes you’re on time. Sometimes there’s a breach.'"  

Democrats, too, feel that running out the clock has been a consistent part of legislating.  

“Oh, I mean, I was in the state legislature 30 years ago, and we operated like that," 13-term Rep. Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., said. Some Republicans, though, think the process is going to change with new leadership.  

"I think this is going to be the last year for a while that this is going to happen," said Wyoming Republican Cynthia M. Lummis, the sole female member of the House Freedom Caucus, who's retiring at the end of this Congress.  The end-of-year drama has been a constant feature of Lummis' time in Congress, she said, "up until the day Paul Ryan raised his hand and was sworn in." "And now," she added, "all bets are off on the old culture; the new culture is coming. But it doesn’t happen on a dime, and so we’re in the remnants of the last draws of breath of this aberration of a process." One reason to be hopeful things actually will change, Reynolds said, is that the budget deal passed at the end of October outlined next year's top-line spending levels, which should speed up next year's negotiations.  

"At the same time," she cautioned, "next year is an election year, and obviously their attention will be directed elsewhere." In the meantime, Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., is capitalizing on the year-end scramble in the partisan messaging wars, recently tweeting a riff on Adele's new hit single.  

He wrote: "Hello from the other side/we postponed this 1000 times/I'm sorry/we don't know how to legislate/Republicans made us wait til the last date."  

Related:

The 'Snail's Pace' of Omnibus Negotiations
Ryan: House GOP Will Build 2016 Legislative Calendar Together 
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