The Battle of the Budget Isn't Over

(Photo: AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)

Outgoing House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise talk to reporters on Tuesday about the two-year budget deal.

Even seasoned observers of Washington seem to have come away from this week’s events thinking that we’ve seen the last of the brinksmanship that has defined the last six years of the Obama presidency. The deal on the budget, debt limit, looming increases in Medicare premiums, and cuts in Social Security disability insurance supposedly “cleans the barn,” to use John Boehner’s phrase.

That impression, however, reflects a misunderstanding of the basic facts about the federal budgeting process. All those exultations by progressives that they faced down the House Freedom Caucus and forced them to give up their hostages are wildly premature. Paul Ryan will have to negotiate the same balancing act that ended up forcing his predecessor to retire.

What the House passed on Wednesday and the Senate passed early Friday morning is not the final budget. It’s merely a framework for topline discretionary and defense spending for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The deal sets a level for that spending, and provides offsets to account for going over sequestration orders put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

But once Congress has agreed upon the top line, it must go back and appropriate funds to the specific agencies and programs that make up the federal government. The House has passed six of the twelve appropriations bills, but the Senate hasn’t passed any, and even if it did, the bills would have to be rejiggered to account for the new funding levels.

Right now, the government is funded under a continuing resolution that expires on December 11. Sometime between now and then, the 12 appropriations bills, consistent with the new framework, must be passed to keep the lights on. This was true before the budget deal was made and remains true after it passes into law. The media have snookered everyone into thinking Congress has done all the hard work, but it has not.

That means we’re not finished with opportunities for hostage-taking, as conservatives can still hijack the budget process to earn long-sought victories. Attached to all of the existing appropriations bills are riders unrelated to the budget, affecting everything from social to environmental to financial regulatory policy.

In September, Public Citizen and hundreds of other organizations outlined just a sample of those riders. For example, the appropriations bills on offer would cancel all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. They would prevent enforcement of a proposed Labor Department regulation to mandate investment advisers to operate in their clients’ best interest. They would cancel the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules. They would stop environmental regulations on clean water, endangered species, and air-quality standards for ozone, and block an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule on toxic silica dust in the workplace. They would exempt flavored cigarettes currently on the market from regulation. They would halt the Securities and Exchange Commission from completing rules requiring publicly traded companies to disclose political spending. They would block rules limiting the hours long-haul truckers can spend on the road without rest. And they would change hundreds of other rules, regulations, and funding priorities.

These aren’t primarily funding decisions, but unrelated favors that reward conservative friends (typically businesses seeking to be unshackled from regulations) and punish enemies such as Planned Parenthood and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They would fail as standalone legislation, but can pass when attached to the budget like barnacles to a ship. And they are exactly the type of policies—repealing environmental and safety regulations, attacking Planned Parenthood—that conservatives deemed important enough to be worth shutting down the government for. That bomb has not been defused; it hasn’t even been delayed.

The White House, in its statement on the budget deal, said that it would work with Congress “to enact responsible, full-year FY 2016 appropriations—without ideological riders—based on this agreement.” But there is nothing in the deal that prevents Congress from sending appropriations with these riders and daring the president to veto them. Everybody, therefore, has the same choices in front of them that existed before John Boehner announced his resignation.

The White House must decide whether to veto appropriations bills with unrelated policy riders. Its track record in this area is spotty. President Obama allowed riders in the 2011 omnibus appropriations, revoking needle exchange and abortion funding and expanding school vouchers in the District of Columbia. Last year, a sea of riders swept in with the so-called “CRomnibus”: revoking derivatives rules in the Dodd-Frank Act, increasing donation limits for party committees, allowing trustees to cut pensions to current retirees, facilitating government-supported coal plant funding overseas. It remains to be seen what the president will do in the face of the new riders.

Similarly, Speaker Ryan, who everyone thinks needs only to test out the chairs in his new office for the next couple years, has an immediate choice to make. How far will he go to rein in appropriators? Who will he choose: the fire-eaters who would rather burn down the government than fund Planned Parenthood, or a party establishment that believes another shutdown would look terrible for Republicans? The fissures that ejected Boehner from the speaker’s chair will open up within the next month and a half, only deepening grassroots conservative anger, unless Ryan sides with the hard right.

Senate Democrats have already sounded the alarm. Earlier this month, Senators Charles Schumer and Debbie Stabenow demanded that riders be cleared from the “rigged” Republican appropriations bills. And on the Senate floor on Thursday, Minority Leader Harry Reid said, “We’ll be happy to move (appropriations bills) as long as we get rid of those vexatious riders that have nothing to do with the bill brought before us.” If Senate Democrats are united against all riders, they could successfully filibuster. But at some point, the appropriations would need to be passed: It’s all a matter of who will blink first.

With time running short, we’ll likely see an omnibus bill, with all 12 appropriations attached, before the December 11 deadline. Just like last year, that deadline is conveniently timed for the holiday season, when most people aren’t paying attention to politics—even more so now that the media has signaled that the budget process is complete. We know that inattention breeds shenanigans in Washington. And despite claims to the contrary, the threat of a government shutdown, the prospect of right-wing hostage taking, and the potential for an Obama administration cave-in all remain.

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