Grading Ryan’s first omnibus

Editor’s Note: With Paul Ryan’s rise to become Speaker of the House, he faces a set of immediate challenges that will help determine his legacy. In this series, Molly Reynolds will profile some of the major issues and legislation Speaker Ryan will be forced to address. Earlier posts addressed his new changes to the Steering Committee and to the conference committees. This post looks at how Paul Ryan’s first omnibus stacks up.

As Congress heads home for the holidays this weekend after wrapping up a $1.1 trillion bill to fund the government through October 2016 and a measure containing over $600 billion in tax cuts, it marks the end of Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) first trip as Speaker through the now-customary omnibus appropriating process. While former Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) was Speaker, he oversaw omnibus appropriations packages for all or part of five fiscal years (2011 through 2015); these included December 2011’s “megabus” and December 2014’s “CRomnibus.” How does Ryan’s first experience stack up his predecessor’s?

In some procedural ways, this year’s measure feels like those overseen by Boehner. The House Rules Committee sent this year’s bill to the floor under a closed rule, preventing amendments related to Syrian and Iraqi refugees and abortion issues. All of Boehner’s omnibuses came to the floor under similarly restrictive floor procedures. Because the spending bill would increase the deficit by an estimated $57.6 billion over ten years (largely due to the inclusion of several tax provisions), enacting it also requires waiving the House’s “pay-as-you-go” budget rules. The December 2014 and January 2014 deals required similar waivers, though to cover much smaller increases in the deficit (roughly $3.5 billion and roughly $573 million, respectively).

In addition, despite the heavy emphasis on Ryan’s ability to get a majority of the majority to vote for the spending package, the share of the Republican conference who supported the final measure was more or less in line with the vote margins under Boehner. On the omnibus bills considered under Boehner, the share of GOP votes in favor of the bill ranged from 57% (on a FY 2012 measure containing the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, and Transportation-HUD titles) to 88% (on the March 2013 bill funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year). Ryan came in this year at 61%, or 150 of his 246 conference members. While it was of great political importance to Ryan to avoid being “rolled”—perhaps greater than it was for Boehner on any of his omnibuses—getting a majority of the majority party to support a massive spending package is in line with recent experience, even for a spending-averse Republican caucus.

In other ways, however, this year’s omnibus experience was different. Republicans, both those in Speaker Ryan’s camp and potential opponents, have claimed publicly that Ryan did more or less the best he could with the hand he was dealt—or, as Ryan himself described it, with “a cake that was pretty much half-baked.” Yes, the text of the bill was posted in the middle of the night, but Ryan did seem to buy himself some goodwill by waiting three days to vote on the measure in order to give members time to read the bill (despite the fact that House rules did not actually require him to do so).

Perhaps more important than procedural differences, however, were substantive ones. While the central purpose the omnibus is keep the government’s discretionary programs running for the rest of the fiscal year, negotiators seized the chance to hitch a number of policy provisions to the spending wagon. This included not only policy riders—a common feature of appropriations measures, especially under divided government—but separate, fully formed pieces of legislation. This includes a cybersecurity measure that the two chambers were negotiating, the 2016 intelligence authorization bill, an extension of federal health programs for 9/11 first responders through 2090, a three-year reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the National Oceans and Coastal Security Act. While Boehner’s omnibuses were certainly targets of opportunity for enacting other bills—the April 2011 measure included a reauthorization through 2016 of DC’s school voucher program, and last December’s omnibus contained significant pension-related legislation—the number of full legislative ornaments on this year’s “Christmas tree bill” is notable. Not only did negotiators use these additional legislative provisions to logroll within the omnibus, but they acted strategically to do so across the spending bill and the tax extenders package as well. Just as with October’s deal to set top-line spending numbers for 2016 and 2017, leaders were able to leverage one of Congress’s greatest assets: that, in the words of former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), “anything can be the basis of a deal.”

Both Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have pledged their commitment to consider appropriations bills separately next year. Doing so would represent a key success in Ryan’s quest to “restore regular order,” but will it work? A recent promise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) not to filibuster the motion to bring appropriations bills to the floor would, if kept, make a notable difference. As political scientist Peter Hanson has argued, however, there are other obstacles, including amendment practices, to a functional appropriations process in the upper chamber. Ryan will also have to hope that he can prevent ancillary political issues from colliding with the House’s practice of considering spending measures under open rules, as happened this year when the appropriations process was derailed by a controversy over the Confederate flag. With the pressures of an election year calendar, if the going gets tough, congressional leaders may find themselves tempted to take the same approach they did in both 2008 and 2012, passing temporary spending bills in September and leaving the rest of the appropriations work to be done by their successors. We may well see a more regular appropriations process next year, but Ryan’s first omnibus may not be his last.