They came, they saw and they gaveled.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) last week heralded the first conference committee on an appropriations bill since 2009, saying he’s overseen a “huge improvement” in restoring regular order, before gaveling the meeting to a close minutes later.
But despite Rogers’ optimism, there are lingering concerns about the substance of conferees’ negotiations and whether they can overcome some significant policy differences, including a serious disagreement over how expensive of a home mortgage the federal government should be insuring.
Rogers and Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.), the top Democrat on the spending panel, vow that their lieutenants are doing the heavy lifting on negotiations with the Senate over a three-bill minibus. “These subcommittee chairmen and ranking members are at work, have been for days now,” Rogers said Friday.
But still undecided is whether the conference committee will meet again to hash out disagreements with public votes. The House is in recess this week, and while Rogers asked Members to be “available” for continued negotiations, he didn’t ask for them to be physically present.
“I hope that it’s a real conference committee,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a conferee and chairman of the Appropriations subpanel that deals with agricultural matters. “I will say this, that the bicameral dialogue has been going on, and the bipartisan dialogue. Whether the committee gets into every single issue or not, we are having real negotiations.”
Still present, though, are the bitter memories of recent opaque appropriations battles. One conservative GOP House Member not on the conference committee said he didn’t know — and didn’t care — who the conferees were.
“Mommy and Daddy are doing the negotiating. The kids aren’t,” the lawmaker told Roll Call.
The same source described the simmering tension between conservatives and appropriators over disaster aid in relation to the spending levels in the minibus. Some conservatives feel they have compromised enough by not pushing for spending cuts even beyond those in the budget sponsored by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and passed earlier this year.
The Republican Study Committee “came in, said we want a lower number than the Ryan budget. We compromised, [and] we supported Ryan’s at $1.019 trillion. We compromise again [during the debt ceiling negotiations], it’s at $1.043 trillion. And now, it’s even higher. It’s a bridge too far,” the lawmaker said.
Appropriators say the issue is moot.
“It’s a done issue. Whether you like it or not, it’s what it is,” said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Appropriations subpanel dealing with transportation matters and a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“The debt ceiling bill established a new procedure for disaster relief, a rolling 10-year average. We’ll stay within that cap,” Rogers said.
But conservatives chafe at that answer.
“The concern [RSC members] have is that NO ONE during the [Budget Control Act] developments and decisions mentioned that disaster aid would be above the cap. Also, a cap is a cap, not a floor. Why is it so seemingly out of bounds to presume that we wouldn’t spend exactly what the cap is — that we might spend less?” a senior GOP aide emailed to Roll Call.
Latham hinted at how the impasse might be resolved: by utilizing Democratic votes to bypass the conservatives’ complaints. “I think we can get bipartisan support for the package,” he said.
Another big flash point is over Senate minibus language sponsored by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that would raise the limit on mortgage sizes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can guarantee to $729,750 from the current maximum of $625,500. The limits were raised in 2008 in response to the financial crisis but expired at the end of September.
Proponents of raising the limit say it will bolster the housing market and help revive the economy. Opponents say it’s a subsidy for millionaires to buy expensive vacation homes.
Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) has made a cause of raising the limit, telling Roll Call that housing prices will “crater, and it’ll be our fault” if it’s not done.
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) opposes the measure just as fiercely.
“We are not talking about first-time homebuyers here,” he said. “If you’re talking about a $700,000 loan, you’re talking about buying a $1 million house. This is just a case of saying, ‘Should the average American be supporting, basically, millionaires?’”
Campbell voted in September against the continuing resolution when it failed on the House floor, protesting the absence of the provision to raise the limit. That earned him an audience with Boehner, an opponent of raising the limit, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Campbell supported the next CR, helping it pass the House.
“There was some back and forth about it,” he said about the meeting. “But I don’t know what they’re going to do or not.”
Meanwhile, at an RSC meeting Oct. 26, the issue blew up again. Campbell and Garrett went after each other over the topic. “It was intense,” said one person who was in the room.
RSC Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) eventually had to intervene.
“Jordan had to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got other things to talk about.’ We were clearly going to debate this for the next hour if he’d let us,” Campbell said.
Garrett was lobbying Latham on Friday when the two walked off the House floor.
“I make my case, and I think they’ll work it through with leadership,” he said.
There are other issues. House and Senate leaders could add as many as two bills to the minibus to expedite the appropriations process. The Homeland Security and legislative branch appropriations bills are candidates.
But, overall, most Members and staff are optimistic that the conference is closer to regular order than has been the case in recent years.
“I think it’s going to be done more at the subcommittee level. The chairmen and ranking members … and the staff will work these things out,” Dicks said. The current CR funding the government expires Nov. 18, so the conference committee has less than two weeks to avert another shutdown showdown.