In Washington This Week, The Drama Isn't Just in the Senate Judiciary Committee
Around the United States—and indeed around the world—attention will be focused on the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Tomorrow, the panel’s 21 members -- 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats -- will hear from one of the women accusing Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault and then will hear from Kavanaugh again himself following her testimony. Given the intense, emotional reaction to the drama surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination from across the political spectrum, we’ll not opine further on the issue other than to suggest that C-SPAN is likely to have quite a few more viewers than normal tomorrow.
As a result of the drama now surrounding it, the Supreme Court nomination has, for the first time in years, taken the focus off Sept. 30—the date by which federal lawmakers must pass spending legislation for the next year. If Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill -- and President Trump doesn’t sign it into law -- large parts of the U.S. federal government will cease to function and the word “shutdown” haunts October headlines, just weeks before the midterm elections.
We’ve become far too familiar with this outcome, and there is very good reason for it: spending bills are now one of the few opportunities lawmakers have to insert raw ideology into major, must-pass legislation.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the House and Senate’s nonpartisan research arm, the American people have endured 18 federal government shutdowns in the last 40 years. What’s driving the fights, however, has changed over time. In 1995, which saw one of the more memorable shutdown fights between a newly-minted Speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and President Bill Clinton, the shutdown resulted from discord about the size and scope of the federal government. Republicans had just rode a wave into the House and Senate atop their Contract for America and were threatening not only to cut funding, but to eliminate entire agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education.
Contrast that debate with what happened in 2013. (There were no shutdowns between 1995 and 2013.) That year, a freshman lawmaker from the Lone Star State, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), made “government-run” healthcare the focus of the fight. Republicans had tried for a few years to repeal the Affordable Care Act (colloquially now referred to as “Obamacare”) and, unsuccessful, Sen. Cruz attempted to use the annual appropriations process to take the teeth out of the law. When that shutdown began on Oct. 1, 2013, the headline of The Washington Post style section, channeling the views of so many of us from both sides of the aisle who have become frustrated with our politics, simply read, “Ugh.”
This past January, the nation suffered through a relatively mild, two day shutdown, but, again, matters of policy were at the heart of the matter. That stalemate was driven by questions about whether lawmakers would extend a program that gave young undocumented immigrants the chance to work or go to school in the United States.
There is a reason that shutdowns, or even the threat of shutdowns, have increased significantly in recent history. Spending bills are no longer only about spending. Policy riders frequently are offered to these bills that would affect environmental policies, funding of certain government groups opposed by conservatives, and labor and financial regulations.
Why? Because these bills often are the only opportunity lawmakers have to actually make law. This development happened over several years. Here’s how Brookings Institute government expert Molly Reynolds explains the shift:
“Through the mid-1990s, leaders treated a wide range of House bills the same way, leaving them open for amendment. But in recent years, those opportunities have all but disappeared on non-spending bills. Since 2011, the House Rules Committee has sent only 11 non-spending measures to the floor under open rules [allowing any lawmaker to propose an amendment]. When their ability to influence other bills is limited, lawmakers channel their amendments to spending bills.”
The policy issues put forward are highly controversial of course, which turns fights over funding into an explosive mix of debates about the size and scope of the federal government and social policy.
This year’s appropriations process has seemed, to this point, relatively uneventful. Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), appropriators have worked to combine several funding bills into one and to keep controversial policy amendments off the docket.
There are just four days left in the funding year, however, and at this writing, the president has signed only three of the 12 fiscal year 2019 spending bills into law. There’s still a lot of work to do and with President Donald Trump threatening not to sign appropriations legislation if he doesn’t get funding for his border wall (again, immigration is at the heart of an appropriations bill), a shutdown is possible even though the cable news networks aren’t covering it yet.
More likely, however, is that lawmakers will pass a measure to keep the federal government running for a short period of time. Called a continuing resolution, or a “CR”, this method has been used routinely over the last 20 years to avoid a shutdown. A “CR” is essentially a stopgap funding bill that continues government funding at existing levels for a period of a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months. Indeed, members of Congress, eager to get back home to campaign for reelection, are preparing for this outcome.
While attention was focused elsewhere last week, the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would fund the departments of Defense, Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. The House is expected to pass that bill this week. Nestled inside that bill is a provision that provides funding through Dec. 7, 2018 for any agencies and programs that do not have appropriations legislation enacted before Oct. 1, 2018.
So while all of the attention in Washington and across the country will be focused on the Senate Judiciary Committee, it’s worth paying attention to whether President Trump indicates whether he will or will not agree to a short-term CR. If the president doesn’t go along with Congressional leadership’s plans, we’ll all be talking about the United States’ 19th federal government shutdown early next week.