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Supplemental Bill Defies Emergency Label

With Democrats firmly in control of the White House and Congress, we are theoretically enjoying the fruits of unified party government. However, as previously explained in this space, we are a representative, not a parliamentary, democracy. Therefore, the term “unified party government” is a double oxymoron: Neither the U.S. government nor its ruling party is unified.

[IMGCAP(1)]Nothing illustrates this better than the prolonged haggling over what was supposed to be an emergency supplemental appropriations bill for disaster relief and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq requested by the administration in February. Historically, presidents and Congress are united in response to wars and national disasters — at least at the outset. But as wars drag on and disasters become more commonplace, legislation to fund them becomes more expansive and contentious.

What passed the House in March as $5.1 billion in “emergency supplemental appropriations” for disaster relief and summer jobs was broadened in May by the Senate with a $59.1 billion bill that included $33.5 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the secretary of Defense’s claim the war funds were urgently needed by the July Fourth recess, one might have expected the House to expedite passage of the Senate-passed bill with minimal delay or change. However, the House understandably takes its powers of the purse seriously — especially when it had not yet considered the war funding issues. (Note: That concern did not stop the Appropriations chairman from bypassing committee consideration both times.)

Most problematic for passage were: (1) substantial concerns within Democratic ranks about a seemingly open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan, (2) pressures for increased funding for other domestic needs and (3) countervailing worries about deficit spending. The House majority leadership’s challenge was to devise a procedural strategy that would simultaneously accommodate all these competing factions without completely alienating any. This near-impossible task led to a near-impossible-to-understand procedural fix — one of the most convoluted ever devised. It had all the magic of a Cirque du Soleil three-way juggling act using double-edged swords that appeared to nick no one.

The House Democratic leadership had three basic options: to disagree to the Senate amendment and ask for a conference; to agree to the Senate amendment (and send the measure on to the president); or to concur in the Senate amendments with further amendments. It chose the latter course.

The special rule, reported June 30, provided for a motion to concur in the Senate amendment with five additional amendments that boosted the total cost of the package to $80 billion. However, the rule also provided for dividing the question on the five amendments, meaning five separate motions to concur in the Senate’s war and disaster amendment with each House amendment.

The first of the five was deemed automatically adopted (a self-executing rule). That amendment included expansion of the original summer youth jobs program to a year-round, $1 billion program for 14- to 24-year-olds. The amendment was inserted late at the insistence of the Congressional Black Caucus but resisted by Blue Dog Democrats for fiscal reasons. However, by adopting the rule the House avoided a direct vote on the jobs program while simultaneously adopting Blue Dog-favored budget spending caps and pay-as-you-go changes. The procedural ploy worked, barely, as the rule passed by just five votes. Of the 38 Democratic “no” votes on the rule, only eight were Blue Dogs and three were progressives (protesting the self-executed war funding).

The second amendment, championed by Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), contained more than $10 billion for an “Education Jobs Fund” to prevent the layoffs of thousands of school employees across the nation. It also included additional funding for Pell Grants, border security, innovative technology energy loans, schools on military installations and additional Gulf Coast oil spill funding.

The new expenditures would be offset in part by $11.7 billion in rescissions — cancellations of already appropriated funds no longer considered necessary. These included $800 million in cuts in the president’s vaunted educational reforms. Although the president strongly objected to these rescissions and threatened a veto, the amendment was adopted with only 15 Democratic defections. (If this and the remaining three amendments were all rejected, the rule provided that the overall motion to concur in the Senate amendment would be considered rejected — a clear incentive to support Obey’s amendment.)

The third, fourth and fifth amendments provided options on U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan: the first striking all funding for Afghanistan, the second confining the use of funds to the withdrawal of troops and the third requiring the president to establish a timeline by April for a “redeployment” of all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. All three were rejected, though the third option garnered 162 votes, including that of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The House leadership’s decision to use an emergency funding bill for less urgent matters was a calculated gamble because the costly, deal-laden add-ons risked rejection by the president and/or Senate. If that happens, House leaders may be forced to acquiesce to a bipartisan majority for a relatively “clean” supplemental. Procedural gimmicks and deals can produce euphoric partisan victories but cannot guarantee acceptable final solutions across constitutional divides.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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