You may have forgotten amid this year’s spectacle of Donald Trump, but the U.S. government also includes a legislative branch, composed of the House and the Senate. This year, they’ve succeeded in making themselves invisible, with almost no laws of any importance passing. And they’ve been on recess for the last seven weeks, one of the longest breaks in the past 50 years.
But when Congress returns to session next week, they’ll have to deal with practically the only piece of legislation they cannot avoid: how to fund the government before a September 30 deadline. Failure to pass this bill would lead to a partial shutdown, just like the one we saw in 2013.
We’ve been living with the Republican culture of legislative hostage-taking since they took over the House in 2011, so storyline is familiar: Hardline conservatives try to attach ideological priorities to the must-pass funding bill, advancing them because of the threat of a shutdown. Sometimes it works, as in 2014 when Congress passed a rollback of derivatives rules written by Citigroup lobbyists that was tucked inside a spending bill. Sometimes Democrats and the White House hold firm, as in 2015 when it was widely believed that conservatives got nothing for their efforts.
But this year there’s a surprising twist. The Tea Party–aligned forces are arguing for a long-term spending bill, warning of betrayal if Congress does otherwise. By contrast, the Democrats, who have traditionally sought long-term certainty, want the spending bill to only last until December.
What’s going on here? Like everything in politics these days, it’s all about the presidential election.
The House Freedom Caucus, composed of the most hardline rank-and-file Republicans, has led the charge for a long-term funding bill. They’re getting backup from a network of organizations, allied with the Koch Brothers, that would rather fund the government with a continuing resolution—that is, with no changes to current funding—lasting until at least March 2017. Originally they wanted the continuing resolution to be as long as two years.
These groups fear that Congress would use the lame duck session after the elections, when attention is low and outgoing members have no accountability from the voters, to pass a resolution that gives President Barack Obama a final victory by raising spending. They even have a coalition called No Lame Duck Spending. “Congress should not be making another long-term spending deal with President Obama and Harry Reid,” said Jim Jordan, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, earlier this month.
By pushing the status quo, the Freedom Caucus is admitting that they got a pretty good deal on baseline spending in the Obama years. Government investment as a share of GDP has plunged to levels not seen since World War II. The Budget Control Act, instituted in 2011 to put an artificial spending cap on fiscal appropriations, created this starving of the government beast. And conservatives have been mostly successful at maintaining it. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 did raise spending levels, but only slightly. If the conservative goal was to ratchet down how much support the federal government could provide to the economy, they succeeded.
But the Freedom Caucus recognizes that, even if Republicans keep the House in November, their membership will be depleted and their influence muted. The best way to preserve their austerity legacy is to push it through Congress now, before the September 30 deadline, rather than seeing it unravel in the lame duck.
Plus, Democrats have a lengthy wish list for a spending bill, mostly emergency funding requests that must get done before the next Congress: funding to combat the Zika virus, which Republicans have delayed almost all year; action on fighting the opioid epidemic, which Congress passed in July but without appropriating any money to implement it; support for busted water systems like in Flint, Michigan; and disaster aid for flood-stricken Louisiana and Mississippi. There’s even a possibly contentious battle over the Export-Import Bank, which facilitates sales between domestic businesses and foreign countries. Right now the bank cannot approve transactions over $10 million because of vacancies on their board of directors; supporters (including most Democrats) want that restriction overturned.
Some of these priorities might get into a must-pass measure by September 30; Republicans in Louisiana would like to see the disaster aid before they go home to campaign, and Florida Republicans really want Zika funding to deal with growing numbers of cases there. But Republican leaders like House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers prefer a clean stopgap bill that funds the government into December, when they can use the lame duck to provide assistance without raising the ire of fiscal conservatives prior to the critical November 8 elections.
Stop and think about that: Republican leaders feel they can only help prevent pandemic diseases, save people from succumbing to Oxycontin, or protect the basic human right of water to all citizens if they sneak around during the holidays, when accountability for their actions is low.
But there’s another side to this. By the lame duck, the outcome of the elections will be known. Republicans will be able to see whether they kept Congress, and who the next president will be. There’s a stronger chance that Democrats take the Senate, so Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his caucus thinks they will have maximum leverage during the lame duck rather than in 2017, when Chuck Schumer might control the chamber. So the Freedom Caucus’ desire for a long-term spending package is at odds with the Senate’s desire to retain influence.
If Republican leaders have a plan, they’re being awfully quiet. The House schedule for September includes almost no information on what they will do. But the leadership certainly appears to want a continuing resolution that only extends to the lame duck, and Democrats are eager to help them with that preference. It puts House Speaker Paul Ryan in exactly the same position as John Boehner was in 2015: having to reach across the aisle for votes on legislation that the hardliners in his caucus oppose.
That didn’t end well for Boehner, who’s now spending his days driving around in his RV. Ryan’s vacation, meanwhile, is just about over. He must be thrilled to get back to Washington.