Cochran’s Top Appropriations Goal: Regular Order
Kicking off his second tour as Senate Appropriations chairman, Thad Cochran says one of his top priorities is to ensure spending bills are open to amendments on the floor. Ever the institutionalist, the seven-term Mississippi Republican puts a premium on so-called regular order: moving each of the 12 annual spending bills through committee and on the floor, with unlimited debate and input from all senators before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. But restoring more orderly consideration of appropriations bills will be a tall order after years of Senate dysfunction, particularly given tight fiscal 2016 spending caps.
Cochran sat down with CQ Roll Call’s Tamar Hallerman in his Dirksen office on Jan. 14 for his first interview since being ratified as Senate Appropriations chairman by his GOP colleagues. An edited transcript follows.
Q. Lay out your vision for the committee. What are your goals as chairman?
Cochran: To get all the bills done, on an individual basis, would be my idealistic hope, but it is probably beyond the ability of any one person to deliver on that hope. So try as we might, we’re going to end up with some bills grouped together, probably, to expedite the consideration of them all. Not denying senators the right to offer amendments — that’s going to be fully guaranteed by the Senate rules until you have an extraordinary majority who’s willing to cut off debate and move to votes.
Q. Have you made any timing decisions related to committee and floor consideration of spending bills?
Cochran: I think we should, as we have been doing, review the request in public hearings, looking at the request the administration has submitted for the appropriations levels for every department and agency, and consider suggestions for changes by any member of the Appropriations Committee and then on the floor, ideally for any senator. It’s an open process, so I don’t want to see anybody’s individual rights to offer amendments or to debate those amendments denied because of a big logjam of all the bills coming up to the very last possible minute and then trying to push through a continuing resolution or an omnibus bill. That doesn’t serve the interest of the Senate as it should.
Q. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to use spending bills to do such things as cut off funding for EPA carbon limits and roll back Dodd-Frank and the health care law. Can we expect provisions doing that in your spending bills, or are you looking to take a more conciliatory approach with the White House to pass bills that can get enacted into law?
Cochran: We’re going to inevitably have to work with the White House because the president has to sign the bill. We don’t want vetoes of appropriations bills when we could work out differences before we get to the point of consideration of amendments on the floor. So what we inevitably have to do is work together.
Q. But at least initially in your opening bid, the chairman’s mark, can we expect some of these riders that we’ve seen in the House over the last few years that have really incensed Democrats?
Cochran: I think we’ll see some amendments come over from the House that were part of their bills that will be in the committee mark. That’s not unusual. And some won’t. But any senator can offer an amendment reflecting the content of a provision that was added on the floor or in the committee by the House but maybe wasn’t in the president’s budget request or maybe the president’s opposed to it. But we work it out, we work out differences. We’re not going to come to a unanimous vote on every suggestion, but we do have the right for individual senators to offer their amendments. We don’t try to cut off debate, deny anybody that opportunity.
Q. Is your ultimate goal to come out with bills that can be signed by the president and enacted into law? Or can a presidential veto perhaps be productive when it comes to spending bills?
Cochran: The president has a right to exercise the power of the veto, and that’s up to the president. But we do have an independent responsibility to express our views, voice our opinions if we feel it’s important to do so through amendments or the defeat of administration suggestions that may have been voiced either informally or through provisions in a submission by the administration. So we’ll work those things out, but we have I think safeguards in place so that everybody has the opportunity to participate in the process in the United States Senate.
Q. When you were Appropriations chairman in 2005, you were able to pass all 12 annual spending bills individually, using conference committees. Is that your goal for this year?
Cochran: It is our goal. We hope we can achieve that kind of process, and we’ll make every effort to do so.
Q. How involved is McConnell, who is keeping his seat on Appropriations, going to be in crafting these spending bills?
Cochran: As much as he wants to be. He, like every senator, has the right to offer an amendment on any subject to any bill. It doesn’t have to be germane or relevant or anything, so it’s a wide open process.
Q. There are a lot of new senators who haven’t seen a full appropriations process work from start to finish, including conferencing individual bills and enacting them. On your side of the aisle, at least, are you trying to coach newer senators on the importance of the process, as well as how so-called poison pill amendments could endanger passage of a bill?.
Cochran: Well, one person’s poison pill is another person’s way to solve a serious problem facing the American people. Each individual senator has the right to offer an amendment, and we will have to respond to it. We can accept it, or discuss it or debate it and we can vote on it, or we can have a prolonged discussion, if somebody wants to do that.