In the early hours of May 1, Congress unveiled a spending plan to allow the government to function through the end of the fiscal year.
My staff at Taxpayers for Common Sense has been combing through the 1,665-page bill and 1,282-page report to go along with it to see just what Congress decided had to be included at past levels and where the anomalies are at a granular level.
But we know the headlines: Pentagon spending got a boost without a corresponding increase to domestic spending; the physical border wall did not get a down payment (but lots of “virtual wall” items did); Planned Parenthood has not been defunded; scores of policy riders were eliminated; and domestic agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education have not yet seen the deep cuts the Trump administration has talked about, at least for the remaining 5 months of fiscal 2017. All the classic characteristics of a compromise: neither side got exactly what they wanted.
But what else can we learn from this deal and how it came to be?
1. Congress really does have the power of the purse. President Trump did get a significant victory – the increase in security spending was always a priority – but it was a priority congressional Republicans shared. As the old Washington saying goes: The president proposes and Congress disposes. Voters should keep this in mind as they look ahead to the rollout of the complete fiscal year 2018 presidential budget request in a few weeks. As good or bad as that proposal looks, it won’t get anywhere without significant support from Congress. The same is true for tax reform. Presidential leadership can make a huge difference in shaping tax and spending legislation, but only if the president is willing to work with Congress.
2. Even with one party controlling both the White House and Congress, it is possible to make bipartisan deals. One party in power is not the same thing as having the votes to pass every bill congressional leadership or the president wants to pass. As long as there are significant disagreements among House Republicans and neither party has a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, legislation can only pass with some bipartisan support. In this polarized time, that fact will likely mean that very little legislation gets passed. But one way or another, spending bills will get passed.
3. Congress is willing to work to avoid a shutdown. While the president may believe the country needs a good shutdown, there are enough members of Congress that have experienced the political fallout of a government shutdown to not want to repeat it. While avoiding a shutdown once is no guarantee there won’t be one later in the year, the fact that Congress was able to avoid a needless, costly shutdown is a good sign.
4. Even in an era without earmarks, one or two lawmakers can insist on a single provision. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia threatened to block the continuing resolution and cause a shutdown in December unless certain coal miners’ health benefits that were set to expire at the end of 2016 were extended. In December, those benefit were extended through April 30. He made the same demand in this bill, and now those benefits have been made permanent. Of course, the fact that the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, hails from Kentucky and supported the benefits package helped too.
6. Defense contractors priorities are sometimes more important than the Pentagon’s priorities. Even in this five month spending bill, Congress included dozens of programs that the Pentagon did not request, or funding for programs at higher levels than the Pentagon requested. Even under the spending caps imposed in 2011 and increased several times after that, the Pentagon wasn’t hurting for money. The combined base and overseas contingency operations budget requests for fiscal year 2017 was $583 billion. But even that robust request didn’t include the extra LPD-17, for almost $1.8 billion, the continuing resolution included. In fact, Congress added close to $5.7 billion for programs the Pentagon didn’t request at all.
Winning is in the eye of the beholder. Congressional Democrats were quick out of the gate to talk about how the bill was a win for them because there wasn’t funding for a border wall and scores of policy riders were dropped. That prompted administration officials to accuse the Democrats of not operating in good faith and trying “to spike the football.” Separately, Speaker Ryan claimed the win for breaking “parity” by getting extra defense spending without increasing non-defense domestic spending. Pretty much every party claimed the taxpayers interest aligned perfectly with their own perspective. The reality, of course, is more mixed. Policy riders are what Congress resorts to when they want to force the administration to do or not do something. When the same party controls Congress and the White House, riders slow to a trickle. Why use the policy back door when you can go in the front? On the parity issue, the extra defense spending was supplemental funds dumped into the overseas contingency operations “slush fund” account that isn’t subject to the budget caps. Caps that still exist and are actually lower in fiscal year 2018 than they are for fiscal year 2017. The parity fights have always been changes to the caps, and that fight will come back again later this year.
The reason to pay attention to these lessons is that Congress is set to spend the summer and fall developing the spending bills for fiscal year 2018. Given that hearings have not even begun for these bills, it is almost certain Congress will keep up their 23-year streak of being unable to pass all 12 spending bills individually and before the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. So once again, Congress will be in a position to pass an omnibus bill, a continuing resolution or both to avert a government shutdown this fall.