The House adopted amendments on a two-bill spending package last week purporting to redirect sums ranging from $100,000 to study the impact of a mineral found to cause cracking in concrete home foundations, to $36 million for “public safety and justice facility construction” at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
There’s just one catch: the provisions simply give the illusion of moving money around — with no real-world impact on agency funding priorities. The net financial impact of all 14 such amendments considered during debate on the $58.7 billion Interior-Environment and Financial Services measure — out of 87 total floor amendments on the bill — was precisely zero.
The standard language of this type of provision goes like this: “Page X, line X, after the dollar amount, insert “(reduced by $X)(increased by $X).” There’s nothing binding on the agency in question to spend the money a certain way. While ineffectual in practice, such amendments can hold symbolic value: they allow sponsors to tout their influence on the spending process, including in official descriptions circulated in advance of the vote and in floor speeches and news releases.
These so called plus-minus amendments also allow the majority party to appear charitable to the minority by allowing them floor time, and generally accepting such amendments, safe in the knowledge that no real money will change hands. In fact, of the 14 such amendments debated on the floor last week, 13 were sponsored by Democrats; in all, 11 of the Democratic amendments were adopted, all by voice vote.
Nonetheless, no Democrats ultimately voted in support of the underlying two-bill package, which passed the House on a 217-199 vote Thursday.
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., who is among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this midterm cycle, secured approval of the $36 million Bureau of Indian Affairs construction amendment.
In a press release, O’Halleran said his amendment “sets” that level of funding for replacing and building new tribal justice facilities; during floor debate, he said his amendment “suggests” the higher spending level. Either way, it was no skin off GOP appropriators’ back since no funding actually changed, and it allowed Republicans to tout their own devotion to tribal needs.
“I am happy to accept the gentleman’s amendment and work with him and the rest of my colleagues to address the public safety and justice construction needs in Indian Country,” said House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif.
Then there was a bipartisan amendment with Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., which advertises moving $1 million around within the Small Business Administration’s Office of Entrepreneurial Development to devote $600,000 to Women’s Business Centers, and $400,000 to Veterans Business Outreach Centers. Murphy in a statement said she “had serious concerns” with the broader bill given the insertion of “several poison pill riders,” but she added “I’m proud to secure this investment for our small businesses and veterans.”
Murphy is one of just four incumbent Democrats, along with O’Halleran, whose seats are considered “in play” by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Three Republicans, also making Gonzales’ list of the nation’s toughest House races, affixed their names to Murphy’s amendment: Steve Knight of California, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Don Bacon of Nebraska.
Another amendment, from Jared Polis, D-Colo., would encourage setting aside $1 million in SBA funds for technical assistance and outreach about existing programs to help employee-owned businesses, such as the 7(a) loan program.
Polis, who last month won the Democratic primary in his state’s gubernatorial race, in a floor speech cited Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium Brewing, maker of the popular Fat Tire Belgian Style Ale, as an example of a successful employee-owned firm.
Plus-minus amendments sometimes give appropriators a nudge to take their position seriously in future spending negotiations, supporters say. They might even get language supporting a particular goal written into a conference report on the spending bill, although the reports themselves are nonbinding. In the post-earmark ban period dating back to 2011, that may be the closest thing to “congressionally-directed spending” available to rank-and-file lawmakers.
Take two amendments, both adopted, from Connecticut Democrats Joe Courtney and John B. Larson, related to the mineral pyrrhotite, which has ravaged property values and local tax revenues in parts of their state in recent years. The concrete-cracking mineral has left a rash of crumbling and collapsing basements in their districts, from single family homes to military facilities and more.
Larson and Courtney put forward two amendments, one for each title of last week’s spending package: one that would back $100,000 for a U.S. Geological Survey map of pyrrhotite occurrences in the U.S., and one that would support $100,000 for the Treasury Department to study the financial impact on homeowners, mortgage lenders and local property taxes.
Courtney said he expects adoption of his amendments to result in report language being added in conference for agencies to consider when making funding decisions. “When you get these amendments passed, that’s routine,” he said, adding that he’s spoken with USGS officials about the issue previously but hadn’t gotten very far.
“They said that this was not sort of on their radar screen at this point,” Courtney said.
“What we’re adding to is the public opinion that’s needed, and the raising this to a level where other colleagues get to appreciate it,” added Larson, who said he thinks Republicans accepted their amendment because “I think they looked at it as being not harmful to the bill.”
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, is retiring after this Congress, but he used one of his last opportunities to influence federal spending to stump for $20 million in Maritime Heritage Program grants funded by the National Park Service. Poe and fellow Texas GOP Rep. Pete Olson want the money to go towards preserving the USS Texas, which was commissioned in 1914 and saw action in both world wars.
“It’s in bad shape, I mean, 104 years in seawater, and it needs to be restored like any other monument would be ... to make this history not disappear,” Poe said. He compared it to “sense of Congress” resolutions that are nonbinding but allow lawmakers to express a point of view or possibly nudge a piece of legislation in a particular direction.
Other plus-minus amendments adopted during last week’s floor debate include:
Some lawmakers weren’t so lucky. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., was disappointed that her amendment, which would express support for adding $12 million to the EPA’s Superfund account for cleanup of toxic waste sites, was rejected by voice vote.
Jayapal said the House bill’s Superfund spending was inadequate and would “deeply” affect the Hanford and Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund sites. In Hanford, nuclear reactors drained radioactive and other hazardous waste into the Columbia River and penetrated nearby groundwater. The Duwamish River in Seattle was contaminated over decades as it served as an industrial corridor dating back to the early 1900s, according to the EPA.
Jayapal acknowledged her amendment was “to make a point. ...It means that when the final conference committee comes together, that issue is up front and center.”
Calvert opposed Jayapal’s amendment on the floor, however, noting that GOP appropriators “attempted to find middle ground on enforcement while also prioritizing on-the-ground cleanup efforts that returns land to productive uses.”
It’s not entirely clear why Republicans opposed Jayapal’s amendment but not others offered by Democrats. Jayapal has been a vocal thorn in the GOP’s side, however, including a call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
It is very unusual for House members to ask for roll call votes on plus-minus amendments, which lessens the chances for success.
But Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., did just that for her amendment to push $742,000 for EPA Environmental Justice grants, which help minority, low-income and tribal populations comply with environmental regulations. It was rejected Wednesday on the floor, 194-218; all but eight Republicans voted against Adams’ amendment.
Watch: How Do Elections Impact Appropriations?
Democratic women have been winning primaries across the country this year, and two more female candidates have a chance Tuesday of becoming their party’s nominees in Republican-held districts.
Female candidates finished first in the May 22 primaries in both districts, but neither received more than 50 percent of the vote, triggering Tuesday’s runoff. Activist Lucy McBath took 36 percent of the vote in a four-way primary in the 6th District, while professor Carolyn Bourdeaux took 27 percent in a six-way race in the 7th.
EMILY’s List has backed both women and has bundled money for their campaigns, but the pro-abortion rights group hasn’t made any independent expenditures for either candidate.
ICYMI: There’s Been a Dramatic Rise in Female Campaign Donors This Cycle
McBath has received the most national attention of any of the four Democrats running in either district Tuesday, in large part because of her profile as the national spokesperson for advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety and her personal story as a mother who lost her son to gun violence.
The only woman and African-American in the May primary, McBath started the year running for a state House seat but switched to the congressional race after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Her son was shot and killed at a gas station in Florida in 2012 by a man who complained his music was too loud.
McBath is currently on an unpaid leave of absence from the organization, but Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund has spent $1 million backing her in this race. BlackPAC has also made some small direct mail buys for McBath. Her campaign went up with a TV ad on Thursday.
She’s also backed by Giffords PAC, the organization co-founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, End Citizens United and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. She’s received financial support from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, California Sen. Kamala Harris and billionaire Tom Steyer, among others.
McBath is facing businessman Kevin Abel, who finished second in the primary with 31 percent of the vote. He emigrated from South Africa when he was 14 years old and runs a technology consulting company.
In a recent debate, Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy asked Abel whether he felt there should be more women in Congress, and he answered yes, saying that “Congress should reflect the demography of the United States.”
“I believe that in this particular 6th District, I am the right candidate to not only defeat Karen Handel in the fall, but to represent the demography and the make-up of this district,” he added.
Abel’s campaign is stressing his local connections, arguing that voters know him because of his deep ties to the community. His campaign pointed out that he doesn’t disagree with McBath on gun control policy, but he’s been critical of her focus on the issue, calling her a “single-issue” candidate.
“We saw what happened last year when you nationalize an election,” Abel campaign manager Charlie Blaettler said in a phone interview Wednesday, alluding to Democrat Jon Ossoff’s loss to Handel in a high-profile special election.
McBath’s team, however, stresses that as a woman and a two-time breast cancer survivor, she’s uniquely positioned to take on Handel, citing the congresswoman’s support for repealing the 2010 health care law and her role in defunding Planned Parenthood when she was a top official at the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.
McBath is expected to have a slight edge against Abel, especially because of the outside funding from Everytown.
But either candidate will face a tough race against Handel, who ended the second quarter with $1 million in the bank. McBath and Abel had $151,000 and $130,000, respectively, at July 4, the end of the pre-runoff period.
The 7th District Democratic runoff is known in the state for being nastier than the 6th, with more attacks flying between the two candidates.
Bourdeaux, a Georgia State University professor, has hit opponent David Kim, the founder of a tutoring business, in debates for not voting in the 2016 election.
One of Kim’s recent ads touts his record as a CEO but also goes on the attack against Bourdeaux. The spot accuses her of helping craft GOP budgets that cut public education and health care funding.
Bourdeaux was the director of the Georgia Senate’s Budget and Evaluation Office. She’s defended her record, arguing that she held the position during an economic downtown and later supported efforts to restore funding.
She launched her first TV ad Thursday, keeping the 30-second spot focused on congressional Republicans and their efforts to repeal the health care law. “When Trump was elected, that was the last straw,” she says in the ad.
Besides EMILY’s List, Bourdeaux has the backing of End Citizens United, as well as Georgia Democratic luminaries such as Rep. Hank Johnson, former Sen. Max Cleland and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, who also represented the Peach State in the House.
The race is expected to be close.
“Bourdeaux is the small favorite there, if for no other reason because of what we’ve seen elsewhere in Democratic primaries,” said one Democratic strategist following the race, alluding to the trend of women winning.
Kim has poured his own money into the race (he’s loaned himself $736,000) and is expected to be able to turn out Asian-American voters. He’s trying to run on his business record as a “progressive job creator,” while some observers say it could be easier to tie Bourdeaux, as a professor who worked for the government, to the Democratic Party establishment.
“We’re not running away from the fact that she’s been super involved,” Bourdeaux campaign manager Jake Best said, touting her experience but also noting that she’s never been an elected official.
Bourdeaux had $98,000 in the bank to Kim’s $86,000 at July 4. Democrats are hoping Woodall could be a ripe target if a wave develops, especially because he’s never faced a real race before. He ended the second quarter with $529,000.
Two of the most prominent Democratic socialists in the country see an opportunity to exert their influence in an unlikely place: deep-red Kansas.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the 76-year-old senator from Vermont, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democratic candidate from the Bronx who knocked off longtime Rep. Joe Crowley in their New York primary last month, are headed to the western Kansas City suburbs Friday to rally Democrats ahead of the state's August 7 primaries.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez will anchor a nighttime rally for Brent Welder, a labor lawyer who’s running in the crowded Democratic primary in the 3rd District for the opportunity to square off against GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder.
America’s heartland is an unusual place for any political movement with the word “socialist” attached to it to take its message.
President Donald Trump won Kansas by more than 20 points in 2016.
But progressives see potential avenues in the state’s 2nd and 3rd Districts to take down moderate Democrats in the August primary and compete against incumbent GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins and Yoder in November.
Hillary Clinton narrowly edged Trump in Yoder’s 3rd District in 2016. And Democrats have seen more than 20-point swings in special elections in some states and districts over the last year and a half, including in Kansas’ 4th District.
Liberals have argued that to win some of the more difficult races on Democrats’ target list, they’ll have to drum up support not just from traditional voter bases but new voters who lean more progressive.
“If you’re going to flip the district, you have to get new people involved in the political process,” Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis told The Associated Press. “There are so many people not involved.”
At least one GOP consultant indicated Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s trip to Kansas is indicative of a broader trend in grassroots politics of candidates penetrating nontraditional areas of the electorate to deliver messages of change.
“They think they're leaders of a movement, and they are leaders of a movement,” the consultant said of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s as interesting as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump going to all 50 states during the 2016 campaign to make the case that they can be the ones to change their party” to advocate for the forgotten person's political needs.
“The only way [Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez] are going to get the change they want is to get not just people in New York but people in Kansas to agree with them,” the consultant said.
The pair will also stump in Wichita for James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer running in Kansas’ 4th District. Thompson lost by 6 points in a 2017 special election to Rep. Ron Estes, just months after Trump thrashed Clinton in the district by 27 points.
Inside Elections rates that race Solid Republican.
— Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.Watch: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising
Anti-hate groups are calling for elected officials to condemn the remarks of Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar for attending a rally in support of a British anti-Muslim activist.
Gosar attended a rally in London last weekend for Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the English Defence League who previously said most gang convictions are for Muslims.
Gosar said those charges were not the real reason for Robinson’s imprisonment, The Associated Press reported.
“His real crime is not taking pictures; his real crime is his refusal to agree to the government’s efforts to cover up crimes by Muslim gangs who are raping British girls, almost with impunity, and with little apparent regard by the British government,” he said last week, according to the congressional record.
Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of Arizona’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said “It is inexplicable for a sitting U.S. congressman to speak at, let alone attend a rally for someone responsible for spreading as much hate and bigotry as Tommy Robinson. “We condemn the congressman’s choice to stand with far-right Islamophobic conspiracy-theorists, and call on elected officials from both parties to speak out on this matter.”
Gosar spokeswoman Melissa Brown defended her boss to the AP.
“The truth is neither ‘islamophobic’ nor racist. It’s simply truth. CAIR has not disputed the facts. CAIR is condemning me for guilt by association," she said. "Congress long ago determined CAIR was not a legitimate organization that should be deemed a credible source.”
Carlos Galindo-Elvira, the Arizona chapter director for the Anti-Defamation League, also criticized Gosar, Phoenix New Times reported.
“Congressman Gosar’s support of an anti-Muslim and immigrant extremist is appalling,” he said. “We must stand-up and call out bigotry. Arizona’s diverse constituency deserves an explanation.”
The Senate will soon take up a Defense spending bill that would cut nearly $2.5 billion in military aid to foreign fighting forces, an unusually large budget subtraction some say reflects a fundamental change in lawmakers’ security priorities.
At issue is the $675 billion fiscal 2019 Defense money bill, which Senate Appropriations approved late last month and which the chamber may take up later this month.
The measure would downsize President Donald Trump’s requests for programs that equip or train militaries and militias that are combating terrorists on America’s behalf in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond. Some of the proposed cuts are reductions to the president’s fiscal 2019 budget request, and some are so-called rescissions of fiscal 2018 funding that hasn’t yet been spent.
The nearly $2.5 billion in recommended cuts is one of the largest changes to any category of defense spending in either the Senate’s Pentagon appropriations bill or the House’s, and it would stand out as one of the heftiest reductions to any single category of defense programs in recent memory, analysts said.
“It’s an unusually large amount to cut,” said Mark Cancian, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Watch: Lawmakers Press Pompeo On Syria Response Without Congressional Approval
Because the Senate is considering cutting fully $1.9 billion more from such programs than the House-passed bill, this is shaping up as one of the biggest discrepancies that must be reconciled before a final Pentagon spending bill can be written.
The House and Senate differences over military aid have to be sorted out in the context of a broader disagreement over how much to reorder the president’s budget request.
Specifically, the Senate bill would allocate about $8.6 billion more than Trump proposed for developing and procuring weapons. By comparison, the House would add much less for investments in research and procurement spending — just over $2.6 billion more than Trump wanted.
Senate appropriators and authorizers have been more vocal than their House counterparts in arguing that Trump’s budget does not reorient Pentagon programs decisively enough away from combat against al Qaida and the Islamic State and instead toward more rapid modernization of the U.S. arsenal to prepare for fighting nations that wield cutting-edge military forces.
The Senate appropriators’ reductions to military aid programs do not appear to represent a withdrawal of congressional support for counterterrorism missions, so much as a reduction in their priority relative to other increasingly pressing goals, experts say.
The Senate bill “reflects a change in priorities from counterterrorism to conflicts with great powers like Russia and China,” Cancian said.
Senate aides agree that reducing spending on military aid programs will free up more money to modernize U.S. weaponry, but they contend that the aid cuts would have occurred anyway, mainly because the president requested more money for those programs than they need.
The nearly $2.5 billion in Senate Appropriations cuts to military aid would come in four major programs:
Coalition Support Fund. This account reimburses U.S. allies, mainly Pakistan, for their costs in fighting terrorism.
Since fiscal 2015, defense authorization acts have required the administration to certify that Pakistan is helping, instead of hurting, the fight against terrorism before such funds are spent. Those certifications have not been made, and Trump announced in January that he is ceasing most military aid to Pakistan.
As a result, large sums of Coalition Support Fund appropriations are as yet unspent. So Senate appropriators are rescinding the $800 million appropriation for fiscal 2018. Their House counterparts want to rescind only $350 million of it.
Afghanistan Security Forces Fund. In addition, the Senate plan would reduce the president’s fiscal 2019 request for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, money to train and equip that country’s military and police. The Senate bill would subtract $533 million from the fund, decreasing it from $5.2 billion down to the current level of spending, which is $4.7 billion.
The Senate panel’s stated reason for the decision: The Pentagon has not adequately detailed how the Afghanistan program’s money has been spent to date. The House, by comparison, makes no such cuts.
Countering ISIS. The third area of proposed Senate cuts would occur in the so-called Counter ISIS Train and Equip Fund, which bankrolls forces in Syria and Iraq fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS.
U.S. and coalition forces have pushed the group out of most of its territory in those countries, though about 1,000 square miles reportedly remains in the group’s hands.
The Senate panel would cut $406 million out of the administration’s $1.4 billion request for the anti-ISIS program. The House would reduce the same program by just $25 million.
More than half of the Senate’s proposed fiscal 2019 cut, or $250 million, is just a bookkeeping shift of funds from one part of the budget to another, aides said. But the rest of the Senate cuts in the counter-ISIS program are, like the cuts to the Afghanistan aid, due to the Pentagon’s failure to fully explain its spending, the Senate report said.
The Senate committee also took back $400 million from the anti-ISIS fund’s fiscal 2018 appropriation, a move the House did not make.
Military sales. The final set of reductions to military aid would take place in the budget for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which finances sales of U.S. military equipment to allies. Under the Senate bill, the president’s fiscal 2019 request for that agency would drop $200 million, and another $150 million in fiscal 2018 money would be subtracted.
The reason, aides said: The agency has not been able to spend all the money it has received for several years running.
The House committee decreased the defense security agency’s proposed budget by a net $243 million. The House report said the cut occurred partly because some programs had been transferred out of the agency’s budget and partly because House appropriators decided to subtract some $93 million from the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, a program that provides assistance to allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
The military aid programs are funded in the Overseas Contingency Operations section of the budget. That budget would total just under $68 billion in the Senate bill, or nearly the same level as the request, despite the cuts to military aid and other OCO programs.
The Senate panel was able to essentially fully fund the OCO request because it provided more money in the OCO account by shifting about $3.4 billion from the base budget’s operations and maintenance accounts to the war budget’s similar accounts.
That $3.4 billion was not all that was taken out of the base budget’s operations accounts. All told, nearly $5.5 billion was subtracted from the $199.5 billion request for operations spending in the base budget.
Subtracting that $5.5 billion from the base budget’s operations account — and taking another $1.4 billion from the personnel account — provided the bulk of the funds the committee needed to pay for $8.6 billion above the requested amounts for researching and procuring weapons and other gear.
The Senate panel wants to spend much of that $8.6 billion on fighter jets, warships, anti-missile interceptors and a National Guard equipment fund, all programs that are also House priorities.
But the Senate panel said that it focused nearly half of that additional modernization money, or about $3.8 billion, on seven next-generation programs: hypersonics, space, cyber, artificial intelligence, microelectronics, lasers and improved testing ranges for new weapons.
Senate appropriators and authorizers alike are concerned that the rhetoric of the administration’s National Defense Strategy about moving to some degree away from counterterrorism and toward competition against major powers was not matched by enough changes in the fiscal 2019 budget request.
“While the NDS recognizes the persistent nature of terrorist threats and the need to counter those threats, it also represents a significant shift toward long-term, strategic competition and operations in contested domains,” the Senate Appropriations report said.
When Senate Appropriations passed its bill, Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said the seven cutting-edge technologies that netted $3.8 billion in unrequested funds will be needed “to defend our nation in an increasingly complex and competitive national security environment.”
The White House has scaled back foreign aid budgets, but when it comes to military aid in particular, administration officials have given no signals that they approve of cuts.
The White House has yet to issue a Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate’s defense spending bill, but in the White House statement on the Senate authorization bill, Trump’s aides strongly opposed provisions that would merely withhold, but not cut, some anti-ISIS funding, pending submission to Congress of reports on the conflict.
“Restrictions on or gaps in funds that underpin the U.S. strategy of defeating ISIS by, with, and through partner forces — including the vetted Syrian Democratic Forces — would impede our ability to secure a lasting defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and would limit the Secretary of Defense’s ability to act in the national security interest of the United States,” the White House statement said.
Asked for the Pentagon’s reaction to the proposed cuts to foreign military aid, Army Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a spokeswoman, said, “I am not going to be able to provide comment on pending legislation.”