GOP budget work heats up, but hurdles remain

The U.S. Capitol Building is seen shortly before sunset in Washington, U.S. May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Zach Gibson - RTX36B6A

The Senate may be finally approaching the end of its on-going health care drama, but on the other side of the Capitol, work on the budget resolution and appropriations bills is shifting into a higher gear as the August recess approaches—but it may not be smooth sailing ahead.

On the individual spending bills, House Republicans are considering “going ugly early” and bringing a single measure that encompasses all 12 individual spending bills to the floor before the August recess. From a coalition-building perspective, there are certainly benefits to going the omnibus route. Rather than needing to amass support repeatedly on individual measures, rolling separate bills together means leaders only need to build a winning coalition once. In addition, when many issues are on the table, it can be easier to make trades to get certain members on board.

In the specific context of this year’s appropriations process, however, it’s not clear how an early omnibus solves Republicans’ problems. First, the levels of spending embraced by the House Republicans so far would face a difficult road in the Senate, where the filibuster means that at least eight Democrats will need to support any spending package, omnibus or otherwise, for it to ultimately clear the chamber. In addition, in order to spend the amount on the base defense budget that Republicans are advocating—at least $584 billion—they will need to get some Senate Democrats to agree to a second deal, relaxing the caps on discretionary spending put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Unless those limits are addressed, the base defense budget is limited to $549 billion for next year. On the non-defense side, meanwhile, Republican appropriators in the House have been writing bills in accordance with a total spending level of $511 billion, which is roughly $5 billion less than what would be allowed under the existing caps. In both 2013 and 2015, however, Democrats insisted that any increase to the defense caps be accompanied by increases in the non-defense limits. A pre-recess House omnibus consisting of the current individual bills developed by the chamber’s appropriations panel wouldn’t address this problem.

Given this legislative reality, perhaps we should view House Republicans’ initial efforts on appropriations bills as just an opening play in ongoing negotiations. Indeed, proponents of the current approach argue that it would give Republicans “a chance to pass a red-meat spending bill that will lay out GOP priorities,” even if it stood no chance of becoming law. This strategy—take a vote on the most conservative option in the House, and then re-vote on whatever deal can be worked out with the Senate—was a reliable feature of the Boehner speakership and is part of what generated frustration with him among blocs of his conference. Will that dynamic still hold in an era of unified government? As political scientist Frances Lee has argued, when a party controls all three branches of government, it is under more pressure to deliver actual governing achievements. Early reporting on a potential emerging strategy for raising the debt limit, which suggests that Republicans may be willing to approve an increase without corresponding spending cuts, is consistent with this notion. Congressional Republicans may find themselves more tolerant of strategic moves that frustrated them with a Democrat in the White House now that they control both chambers and the presidency, even if it means they will have to try and explain to their voters why more conservative policies aren’t achievable even in the presence of unified government.

While House Republicans have successfully produced appropriations proposals, they have been decidedly less productive at finishing a budget resolution; that measure has been rumored to be near completion several times, with committee consideration currently scheduled for this week. Why has it been so challenging? Republicans have faced several intra-party disagreements, including one involving exactly how the budget resolution will set up next year’s budget reconciliation process. Reconciliation—currently being used to advance the Republican health care bill—prevents certain budgetary legislation from being filibustered. Starting the reconciliation process requires reconciliation instructions, or directives to individual congressional committees to propose changes to certain federal programs they oversee. By charging committees in this way, reconciliation instructions take a power that’s generally left to individual committees—deciding what issues they want to work on—and gives other members the ability to weigh in on that choice through a vote on the budget resolution. Because the budget resolution also cannot be filibustered, this process amounts to input from members of the majority party in each chamber.

This process of writing the reconciliation instructions is shaped by multiple sets of expectations. On one hand, as I discuss in my recent book, the drafters of the budget resolution anticipate the kinds of policy changes committees might make if given the opportunity to do so when deciding which panels to include the instructions. At the same time, committee chairs who are reluctant to make certain cuts to programs they oversee may push back against the agenda setting input of fellow party members. In one prominent example from this summer’s experience, House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-Tex.) reportedly bargained down the size of cuts his committee was to make to farm price supports and nutrition programs from $70 billion to $10 billion. When the majority party is divided—as the current House Republican conference is—we should expect more of these kinds of intra-party disagreements and the accompanying delay in the budget process.

The current measure funding the federal government is set to run out October 1, and avoiding a government shutdown will keep Congress busy between now and then. For House and Senate Republicans, achieving this goal requires grappling with some of the same intra-party debates that have plagued the party in recent years, now in the shadow of a Republican president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.