Now that Congress and the president have come to agreement on a budget deal, Washington will return to its regularly scheduled programming: appropriations. Perhaps calling it “regular” is a bit of stretch given recent history.
The House has already churned through consideration of most bills necessary to fund the federal government in Fiscal Year 2020. After several years of continuing resolutions lingering months into the fiscal year, it is great to see activity early enough to potentially avoid a legislative train wreck of an omnibus or full year continuing resolution in October.
In June, the House first passed a massive, $1 trillion, “minibus” of four large appropriations bills – including those funding departments of Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Energy. (That minibus must be made by Tesla with a price tag that big…) This was followed by a smaller minibus (a mini minibus?) that wrapped up an additional five bills including those funding the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Interior, Transportation and others. Finally, in the last week of June, the full House of Representatives passed a stand-alone Financial Services bill.
But, as yet, the legislation funding Congress itself and the Department of Homeland Security have not made it to the House floor. They were voted out of subcommittee more than a month ago, but were not made part of the first three packages of appropriations bills.
It is not difficult to surmise why either of the bills is being pushed out of prime time. Legislative Branch appropriations clears the way for a congressional pay raise for the first time in a decade. The optics on that are tough. But the more interesting one is Homeland Security.
One of the conditions of the budget deal struck this week was that both sides would refrain from adding “poison pills” to spending bills. At least one of those poison pills would be including a prohibition of any money for the southern border in a continuing resolution or other spending bill be used for wall construction. But conditions and levels of funding for border security are a core element of the Homeland Security spending bill. The House draft for Fiscal Year 2020 includes funding for Customs and Border Protection to deploy technology to maintain the security of the southern border and to hire 1,800 people, including 1,200 CBP officers. However, no funding is provided to build new physical barriers on the southern border. As the committee report correctly notes, barriers are “not a panacea for ending illegal border entries.” The report also notes that money appropriated in both fiscal years 2018 and 2019 is still being obligated to build another 80 miles of barriers. Of course, the Republican-led Senate has yet to write their version of the bill which will likely be quite different in this area than the House.
DHS appropriations is not the only place where there’s action on the border. The Pentagon spending bill, where the administration requested roughly $9 billion in off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations funding for a southern border barrier, also explicitly rejects the request. Again, the Senate has yet to legislate, but the decision to block any further barrier spending in both the Pentagon and DHS bills is certain to invoke a robust response from both the department and the White House. This sets us up for a classic legislative-versus-executive branch battle over the power of the purse.
The budget deal makes clear that Congress can’t hide from hard decisions on border spending – they have to face it head on, both on the floor of the House and in the Senate.
Stay tuned for more drama.