Nothing illustrates the utter dysfunctionality of the 113th Congress more than the failure of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, or THUD, appropriations bills to pass in both houses right before Congress left for its August recess. The problems that led to the demise of these two bills put a capstone on seven months of legislative activity that almost no one has mistaken for either movement or progress. More importantly, however, Congress’s failure to pass these bills casts a very dark shadow over the prospects for spending legislation that must pass both houses before the end of September if the government is to remain open on October 1.
In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the THUD appropriations bill failed because members refused to follow their leadership and the spending parameters they themselves voted to impose only months earlier. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) summed the situation up in an interview with the Associated Press:
When it came time for the general (Republican) conference to affirm the Ryan budget in the form of 12 appropriations bills, the conference balked. … We need to regroup and say, “OK, was your vote for the Ryan budget a serious vote or was that just some political fluke that you don’t intend to follow up on?”
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, explained the legislative misfire in a statement released after the bill was pulled, saying that the legislation:
… was the first major attempt by the House to consider and pass an Appropriations bill that funds domestic programs under the austere level delineated under the Budget Control Act and the House budget resolution.
The bill today reflected the best possible effort … to fund … highway, air and rail systems, housing for our poorest families, and improvements to local communities – while also making the deep cuts necessary under the current budget cap. In order to abide by sequestration budget levels, this bill cut $4.4 billion below the current, post-sequestration total.
He also noted that the bill spent less on those programs than the 2006 THUD appropriations bill, passed by a Republican House. Rep. Rogers concluded that, “The prospects for passing this bill in September are bleak at best … With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago.”
Rep. Rogers and a number of other Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee have actually been warning their colleagues since March that they were creating a budget plan so extreme that it would doom the work effort of the entire legislative session. They argue that while the budget’s low spending numbers may appeal to many members of the Republican Conference in the abstract, the numbers would create deep divisions within the conference once they were translated into actual spending levels on specific programs that even their conservative constituents support.
Now the wheels seem to have come off, and the House appears to have little prospect of passing any of the remaining eight appropriations measures necessary to fund the government in the nine remaining days of the legislative session before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. What’s more, five of those nine days will be partial-day sessions when members either don’t have to be present until after 6:00 p.m., or they can head to the airport by early afternoon. Regardless, in that time, the House must reach an agreement with the Senate on what the federal government will look like on October 1.
Meanwhile, the Senate, in some ways, has the opposite problem from the House. Democrats comprise the majority of the Senate, but under Senate rules, any member can indefinitely block legislation if the majority party cannot obtain 60 votes to allow for the legislation to be brought to a final vote. Since the Republicans currently have 46 of the 100 seats, the only way legislation can be passed is with at least the support of six Republican senators.
It was this very provision in the Senate rules that almost brought the body to partisan warfare in early July when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) warned that if the Senate could not move forward in approving dozens of presidential appointees that had been awaiting Senate action for months, he would support a change in the so-called filibuster rule. A compromise brokered by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) averted a showdown and gave some hope among some members of both parties that the body might at least for a time function in a somewhat more bipartisan fashion.
The Senate’s new appropriations chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), was quick to capitalize on the possibility that greater bipartisan cooperation offered for getting appropriations bills through the Senate. In consultation with Sen. Reid, they decided that the THUD bill stood the best chance of sustaining bipartisan support and reaching final passage on the Senate floor.
For a while it seemed that the new bipartisan spirit would break the legislative gridlock that has plagued the chamber all year. Six Republican members of the Appropriations Committee voted with Democrats to report a spending bill that Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) jointly developed. Sen. Collins explained the effort on the Senate floor, saying “No one has been shut out of this process. We tried so hard to advance this important legislation.”
But in the end, the center could not hold. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is facing a primary challenge from Tea Party member Matt Bevin, marshaled Republican forces to block the bill from reaching final passage. Five of the six Republicans who had supported the bill when it was reported from committee reversed their stance under pressure from their leader and very likely strong pressure from far-right conservatives in their home states. Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS), John Hoeven (R-ND), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Jerry Moran (R-KN), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) all voted to block the bill from going to final passage even though they had voted only a week earlier to send it to the Senate floor.
Asked why Sen. McConnell pulled the rug out from under her, Sen. Collins told Politico, “I can’t speculate on why. All I can tell you is he has never worked harder against a member of his own party than he did against me today.”
Sen. McConnell explained his action by saying, “We need to indicate we’re going to keep our word around here,” implying that Republican support for the Senate version of the THUD bill would violate the party’s commitment to more austere spending limits. But he did not explain why he had given the green light to bipartisan cooperation the week before and then switched the signal to red after the legislation reached the floor. His failure in that regard seemed to seriously undermine the word of at least five of his Republican colleagues.
The more immediate issue here, however, is not what Sen. McConnell’s action did with respect to the future of Senate bipartisanship or rules changes, but rather the fact that it shored up the badly sagging position of House Republicans. Before his action, House Republicans would have left town not only failing to pass their own version of THUD but in a much weakened position in dealing with a Senate that had demonstrated its ability to come together and pass appropriations bills at significantly higher spending levels than the House professed to favor but had proven incapable of translating into legislation.
When Congress returns in early September, it will face major hurdles in reaching an agreement that will fund the government for the coming fiscal year or even the first few weeks of it. Senate spending levels for all 12 of the appropriations bills are $90 billion higher than those the House is insisting on. Making across-the-board cuts from the levels agreed to last year in order to get to the House numbers could recreate many of the nightmares that Congress and the White House worked to avoid in current-year sequester maneuvering, including the furloughing of air-traffic controllers, meat inspectors, border patrol, prison guards, and law enforcement agents. Complicating matters further are demands from some elements of the Republican Party to avoid any agreement at all if it does not include defunding the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”
Both House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) appear to recognize the danger to their party and the country if a compromise is not reached and threats of shutdown are not squelched. But the events of the final week of legislative session before Congress’s August break provide little room for optimism. The far right appears to continue to have firm control over the Republican Party’s negotiating posture in both houses. Despite moderate voices calling for compromise and recognition of the party’s responsibility to govern, the moderates will have little real power unless they actually break ranks—a step that has proven to be increasingly risky for Republican incumbents who hope to retain their party’s nomination in the next election.
Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.