The next big fight in Congress: spending

After the wrangling over the debt ceiling, an appropriations battle looms in Congress, with a Sept. 30 deadline

August 7, 2011
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON — After sweating through the Aug. 2 debt limit deadline, federal lawmakers now have another budget brinkmanship date circled on calendars: Sept. 30.

That is when government funding expires for the year, and Congress could face a repeat of the springtime drama that nearly resulted in a federal government shutdown. The stakes are much different from the debt ceiling battle, but the politics are nearly identical.

The fight to avoid an unprecedented default on government obligations involved reforms to future spending trajectory, and though the final deal was far less ambitious than some proposals, it did promise $2.4 trillion in savings against future deficits. Yearly appropriations disputes will rest on figures in the millions and billions and do not touch entitlements or tax policy. But once again, cut-happy House Republicans will be pitted against the Democratic-run Senate and President Barack Obama, who want to preserve spending on domestic priorities.

Former congressional budget staffer Stan Collender, a partner at Qorvis Communications, predicts, based on the template this year: “a series of threatened government shutdowns — especially because this legislative hostage-taking has been shown to be an effective strategy,” he added.

Sept. 30 is all but certain to pass without a spending deal for the fiscal year. Last year the House and Senate had been unable to pass appropriations through the normal process, and have funded the government through temporary bills called continuing resolutions.

The deal Mr. Obama signed in April to narrowly avert a government shutdown was a continuing resolution negotiated with Congressional leaders to last for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The House has approved six of 12 appropriations bills this year, while the Senate has approved just one — for military construction and veterans affairs. With no chance of all the bills getting through their respective bodies and reconciled in conference committee in September, at least one short-term continuing resolution will be necessary to keep the government going. Congress departed last week for its month-long August recess and is scheduled to return after Labor Day.

Early this year, Republicans used continuing resolutions to demand cuts from previous spending levels and bartered with Democrats over how big those cuts would be. The difference this time is last week’s debt ceiling deal sets appropriations spending caps, so the total spending for Fiscal Year 2012 cannot exceed $1.043 trillion, a $7 billion trim from this year.

Democrats who negotiated the deal have argued that the spending caps will make it easier to avoid a shutdown standoff, and some analysts agree.

“I think it will because there’s no way to argue that we’re not cutting spending,” said Ryan McConaghy, economic director for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

“The deficit deal guarantees that we are going to cut spending in the 2012 budget, and that’s a guarantee that wasn’t in place before. Conservative Republicans can say we cut spending. We know what the number’s going to be.”

But the number isn’t everything. Democrats, in opposing GOP-initiated appropriations plans, have fought so-called policy riders that stemmed from conservative social policy or cuts targeted at agencies Republicans dislike.

That was the case in the Interior and Environment appropriations bill the House debated last week before ditching it for the debt ceiling bill. The bill made particularly deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency — a common GOP punching bag for its clashes with utilities, mining and other industries — and included policy riders such as one that removed funding for the government to list new endangered species. The endangered species provision was removed in an amendment vote.

“This is red meat for their base,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. “Some of their riders are just outrageous. They would turn back the clock 100 years on clean water, clean air or a myriad of other things. Some of it is just messaging for their base and some of it is an attempt to once again accomplish things in the appropriations process that they couldn’t accomplish legislatively.”

The riders will make for loud House floor fights, but are less likely to get through the Senate. And Mr. Obama was able to remove most of the ones Democrats disliked from the continuing resolution deal this year — such as a provision that would have denied subsidies for women’s health screenings to Planned Parenthood because the organization also performs abortions — meaning that the debate likely will rest more on dollar signs.

“I’m sure there will be fights over riders and provisions and what gets funded where, but at the end of the day there’s been legislation that establishes a top line number,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. “And that makes the rest of it a lot easier to come together.”

Mr. Collender insisted that is wishful thinking.

“Just because there’s a cap doesn’t mean there’s a floor,” Mr. Collender said.

“Everybody’s talking about hostage taking. You’re a tea party person, one of the freshmen in the House, and you think you can get another $5 billion in cuts, why don’t you go for it? Especially since the administration hasn’t shown a lot of propensity to take its marbles and go home.”

The freshman Mr. Toomey, who has allied himself strongly with anti-spending conservatives in his early months on the job, hinted at that fight as well.

“I think there will be a very strong inclination for everybody to spend up to that level,” he said of the cap. “I’d rather spend less than that.”

Depending on the length of the short-term funding extensions, the fight also could coincide with the work of the 12-member Congressional “supercommittee” created in the debt ceiling deal that is tasked with coming up with recommendations to trim at least $1.2 trillion from future deficits. It must release its proposals by Nov. 23 and Congress must vote on them by Dec. 23.

Many observers predict another Democrat-Republican deadlock over the familiar themes of entitlements and taxes, and Mr. Collender said the appropriations process could become a political pawn.

“If [Republicans] don’t like what the administration or the Congressional leaders are saying about the joint select committee, they’ll just use this for leverage: ‘We’re going to shut down the government tomorrow,’ ” Mr. Collender said.

For crisis-weary Washington, the prospect isn’t welcome, but in this year’s bitterly divided government, it has become routine.

“I’m looking like, ‘Geez, 60 days out and we go back at this again?’ ” said freshman Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, who didn’t offer a prediction for how the dispute would play out.

“Who knows? I think you’re seeing a lot of things happen that you never saw before.”