PHILADELPHIA ― If Congress is broken, as some critics and lawmakers believe, a major problem is that lawmakers no longer pass regular appropriations bills.
Instead, Republicans and Democrats fiddle around with a few spending bills until the process breaks down enough so that they can wash their hands of it and give up on putting controversial measures on the floor. This way, they can duck tough votes on issues like abortion and eventually negotiate a year-end deal that essentially continues current funding for everything.
Last year, during their GOP retreat, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) vowed that would change. They said they would do their damnedest to get all 12 appropriations bills passed.
It was a key promise of Ryan’s to restore regular order to the House, and McConnell wanted to show voters that Republicans were more responsible stewards of the Senate.
But then, reality set in.
In the House, conservatives blocked Republicans from approving a budget, preventing lawmakers in that chamber from taking up bills until May. And the GOP soon found that they were divided on issues like displaying Confederate flags on government grounds or protecting LGBTQ workers from being fired. Soon, Ryan was clamping down on the open appropriations process, which allows members to offer an amendment on any issue related to the bill, but the appropriations bills stopped anyway.
In the Senate, yes, as McConnell contends, Democrats did repeatedly block a defense spending measure. But that was largely over Republican refusal to make assurances on upholding the terms of a two-year budget agreement, and there was nothing stopping Republicans in the House from fulfilling their promises on appropriations bills except for Republicans themselves.
Ultimately, lawmakers quit legislating in favor of campaigning, and Congress passed one continuing resolution, and then another continuing resolution.
So when Ryan and McConnell came before the press here at the GOP retreat on Thursday, far out from another Election Day and with a Republican president in the White House willing to sign their spending bills, it should have come as more of a shock when leaders vowed to do “some” appropriations bills for “some semblance of regular order” in Congress. But it wasn’t a shock. It was just politics as usual.
Leaders seem to want to avoid an internal fight among their own members over passing appropriations bills with conservative provisions. Previously, when Barack Obama was president, Republican leaders knew he wouldn’t sign measures if they went too far. Now that Trump is president, leaders don’t seem to want Republicans to have the power to legislate on individual bills. It’s much easier to just cut a deal with Democrats at the end of the year.
Republican leaders do have a busy schedule. In the Senate, lawmakers are working through confirming Trump’s cabinet. And Republicans on Wednesday laid out “a heavy non-appropriations agenda,” in the words of McConnell, that includes numerous steps on repealing and replacing Obamacare, implementing a massive tax overhaul by August, and somehow working into the mix an infrastructure bill and a border supplemental that will fund construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
And lawmakers still have to deal with not funding the government for a full year. They’ll have to pass a bill by the end of April, which was supposed to give them enough time to pass those 12 bills before the end of September. But the move away from Republicans promising to pass appropriations bills to essentially shrugging their shoulders at the process is a significant shift in Congress and more evidence that Congress doesn’t seem all that interested in repairing itself.