With spending caps looming, Congress repeats last year’s minibus strategy

A view of the U.S. Capitol, in Washington DC, U.S., June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Al Drago - RC1D9A2CC1F0

Students across the country may be enjoying the first weeks of summer vacation, but the House of Representatives remains hard at work, moving through one of its most important responsibilities: debating and passing appropriations bills. This year, rather than bringing individual spending legislation to the floor, the House has divided its 12 appropriations measures into three “minibus” bills, each of which combines several of the standalone bills written by the Appropriations Committee into a single package.

The first of three minibus vehicles, passed on June 19, contains the spending measures for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education; the Department of Defense; the State Department and other foreign operations; and energy and water projects. The second brings together the five bills funding the Departments of Commerce and Justice and scientific agencies; the Department of Agriculture; the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency; veterans’ programs and military construction projects; and the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. A final package, likely to be considered next week before Congress leaves for its annual July 4th recess, would bring together two of the final three measures, funding Congress’s own operations and the Treasury Department, the judicial and executive branches, and other independent agencies. (The bill funding the Department of Homeland Security—perhaps the most controversial of the set—will remain off the floor for now.)

Given that the congressional budget process is designed to have each of these pieces of legislation come to the floor separately, why is the House taking a different path this year? Political scientists have argued that omnibus legislating can help Congress adapt to difficult governing circumstances, such as divided government and ideological differences within and between the chambers. Bringing together bills about which different groups of legislators care—such as the Labor-HHS-ED appropriations bill and the Defense spending measure—can also make it easier to build a sufficient winning coalition by giving many members a reason to support the package.

Putting different items together into a single measure also has the potential to help members avoid blame for supporting any one unpopular provision; they can argue that the sum total of the large bill’s content was simply too compelling. Counting on the size of a measure to protect individual pieces, however, can be a high-risk strategy. This year, for example, House Democrats originally planned to include the bill funding Congress’s own operations in the first minibus package. That measure, however, did not include language preventing members of Congress from receiving a cost of living increase—a pay raise that was last allowed in 2009. Under pressure from vulnerable members of their caucus who felt that it would be politically unpopular to cast a vote that could be described as raising their own pay, Democratic leaders cleaved the legislative branch bill off from the package, leaving it to be considered later.

Beyond these general factors that make omnibus legislating attractive, there are several considerations specific to this year that have made the minibus strategy attractive. A similar strategy was employed last year, when it helped Congress get more of its appropriations work done before the end of the fiscal year on September 30 than it had in roughly two decades. This year, however, Congress must reach a deal to raise the caps on discretionary spending that have been in place since 2011, or they will face sizable cuts on both the defense and non-defense sides of the budget. House Democrats have written the spending bills that they are considering as part of the series of minibus packages to reflect higher spending levels in anticipation of deal, perhaps with the hope that it will increase their leverage in the negotiations.

Omnibus and minibus bills are often criticized as providing fewer opportunities for deliberation and input from individual, rank-and-file members than bringing each individual measure to the floor separately would provide. One way to evaluate this claim is by examining the number of amendments that members are permitted to offer on the floor. While amendments are an imperfect measure of deliberation—many are symbolic or motivated purely by position-taking goals of their sponsors—they can provide some insight on how much individual members are able to contribute to the development of a bill. This year, across the first two minibus packages, members were permitted to offer an average of 57 amendments to each title, or component of the larger package that’s equivalent to a standalone appropriations bill. In 2016—the last year the House brought a sizable number of its individual spending bills to the floor separately—that average was slightly higher, at 65 amendments per bill. Democrats are, however, permitting more amendments per bill or bill-equivalent than Republicans did during last year’s appropriations season, when the average was roughly 36 amendments.

The House’s work on its series of minibus packages is, of course, just one piece of the overall budgetary puzzle facing Congress this year. Talks on the spending caps and on raising the debt limit appear to be continuing in fits and starts, and ultimate resolution of the appropriations bills will have to wait until the overall size of the budgetary pie is determined. But—thanks in part to their minibus strategy—the House stands to leave town next week having made progress on its component of the broader picture.