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No Summer Job? Hill Turns to Make-Work Budgeting

Broken appropriations system is no friend to unified GOP government

President Donald Trump speaks while flanked by House Republicans in May after they passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law. A Senate measure that Trump had lobbied for behind the scenes died Monday night due to lack of GOP support. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)
President Donald Trump speaks while flanked by House Republicans in May after they passed legislation aimed at repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law. A Senate measure that Trump had lobbied for behind the scenes died Monday night due to lack of GOP support. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images file photo)

Approaching a half year back in control over Washington, Republicans still lack decent prospects for securing their first meaningful legislative accomplishment — and so they’re anxiously casting about for something productive to do with their summer.

But their most readily available option, trying to create at least the appearance of restoring some regular order to routine appropriations, is essentially guaranteed to generate little beyond disappointment.

President Donald Trump and his nominal congressional allies have fallen so far behind the budgetary schedule that it’s already impossible for them to recover in time to avoid a pileup of political distresses, fiscal hostage-taking, blown deadlines, temporary fixes and bureaucratic uncertainties come fall.

The policymaking void, of course, is only magnifying the attention on the oversight Congress has committing itself to — investigating alleged Russian interference in last year’s election and exploring whether Trump’s campaign was a party to it, starting with Thursday’s potentially blockbuster testimony by fired FBI Director James B. Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

A long slog through the next round of the budget wars would probably still be in store, even if the deeply factionalized GOP could come together behind a grand total for the amount Congress should parcel out for the coming year. And that would be likely even if the White House could definitively decide whether to avoid or embrace another period of toxic brinkmanship before an obligatory increasing of the federal borrowing limit.

But no sign of top-level talk, about either an expenditure cap compromise or a debt limit deal, is welcoming lawmakers back from their Memorial Day break.

David Hawkings’ Whiteboard: How Appropriations is Supposed to Work

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Instead, the roiling internal discord over the spending level has produced opening bids as far as $100 billion apart, a yawing chasm even given the budget’s big-number parameters.

And the administration’s two principal fiscal policy officials are advocating opposite strategies for avoiding a government default by getting the debt ceiling lifted, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wanting it done cleanly and quickly while White House budget director Mick Mulvaney wanting it conditioned on politically painful spending cuts

Time is already running out.

Congress’ longest scheduled stretch in session this year, seven of the next eight weeks, is followed by 36 days of summer recess and then just a dozen days when both the House and Senate plan to be meeting before the dawn of the new budget year.

Busting deadlines

To be sure, the budget process never runs as it’s supposed to anymore — and it’s been as broken in times of unified government as during divided governments.

True, Trump busted the deadline for sending his complete request to the Hill by fully 15 weeks. But his two most recent predecessors also took until springtime to complete the assignment their first years in office. The last time budget books were shipped from the White House to the Hill on the first Monday in February, as the law requires, was in 2010.

True, neither of the Budget committees has set a date for marking up their initial blueprints for fiscal 2018, and April 15 was the statutory deadline for the House and Senate to adopt a final compromise. But Congress has managed to complete the task in just six of the previous 15 years, and in four of the years without budget resolutions the GOP ran the Capitol.

True, none of the dozen Appropriations subcommittees in the House, nor any of their analogues in the Senate, have assembled a single spending bill — guaranteeing the latest start to the process in seven years. Still, even in years when the House and Senate have speeded along the bulk of the regular bills in the warmer months, autumns of gridlock have inevitably followed. The last time each appropriations measure got enacted, on time and on its own, was 1994.

The routinely shattered state of the process gets less of the capital’s attention, though, in years when the legislative agenda has a decent number of items that are both getting done and worthy of headlines in the mainstream media.

That’s palpably not the case this year, even with Republicans at the controls of both policymaking branches for the first time in a decade.

The top tier to-do list has been nearly at a standstill since last month’s passage, on the GOP’s second try, of a House bill to replace the 2010 health care law with something that’s 23 million people less comprehensive.

Odds are not great that Senate Republicans can come up with a companion health care bill that 50 of them would vote for, along with the tie-breaking ballot of Vice President Mike Pence. As for a once-in-a-generation tax overhaul, there’s not even agreement yet about whether it should focus on cutting revenues (what Trump wants) or simplifying the IRS code (what Speaker Paul D. Ryan is after).

Trump’s big idea for scoring a bipartisan win, having the federal government leverage $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, is getting “unveiled” this week even though the legislative details are weeks, if not months, from getting off the drafting table.

And his progress toward filling the top 560 or so key positions in his administration is at a crawl, in part because Democrats have slowed the pace of Senate confirmations to a couple a week (just 7 percent of the jobs are filled) but mainly because Trump has made choices for just 15 percent of the open positions.

Back to the routine?

In theory, the GOP Congress has the capacity to change the subject a bit by writing and advancing routine budget bills in June and July.

Working in the lawmakers’ favor is their collective disinterest in considering a critical mass of the president’s proposed budget cuts. Republicans on the Hill have a broad range of opinions about government’s proper size and role, but only a minority of the most confrontational conservatives wants to hobble as many domestic programs as Trump has in his sights.

The internal Republican accord more or less ends there. Some would back selective cuts to social programs if they help offset the 10 percent increase in military spending that Trump wants. Others embrace the idea of a Pentagon boost without getting passionate about any real changes to domestic spending. Still others in the GOP align with Democrats in advocating modest increases for nondefense as well as defense programs.

But no matter how the discretionary spending pie gets sliced, its size will be limited to $1.065 trillion in fiscal 2018, a level set under the sequestration laws of the past decade. That would be 1 percent less than what’s getting spent on regular appropriations this year — but fully 8 percent below the grand total in the omnibus spending package belatedly enacted last month, which simply decreed that a whopping $78 billion in defense spending would not count toward the statutory caps.

As a matter of practical politics, the so-called topline number will have to be increased before the appropriations process can conclude. But there is nothing procedural to prevent the House from advancing bills now and adjusting the bottom lines later.

The most creative solution, for both making some headway and making some headlines, was advanced last week by Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia, who at the start of his fifth term has taken the gavel on the Appropriations subcommittee that takes the lead in setting funding levels for the Treasury, the federal courts, White House operations and a hodgepodge of regulatory agencies.

Rather than persevere in the fiction that all 12 bills might even start down the track toward enactment independently, Graves has proposed that the rough drafts assembled by each subcommittee in the coming weeks be combined into a single measure and put to a vote by the entire House — essentially advancing to the summer, from the winter, the inevitable abandonment of a regular order that’s been nitpicked to death in favor of a gigantic, take-it-or-leave-it omnibus.

The advantages to throwing the Hail Mary pass on second down, rather than as the clock runs out?

If it’s written cleverly enough to articulate a consensus GOP view of what the government’s spending priorities should be — which would mean settling a lot of internal feuding behind closed doors — the behemoth might actually win passage, albeit with entirely Republican votes.

Even if the bill is entirely a messaging document, that triumph of political discipline could enlist the praise of the president and then catapult the GOP toward functionality on other fronts.

And even if the measure is dead on arrival in the Senate, where the Democrats would have the clear desire and the absolute power to thwart it by filibuster, the availability this summer of a legislative vehicle on which to negotiate might even spur an earlier-than-expected start to the inevitable deal-making that really matters on such spending packages — between the White House and the leaderships of both parties from both sides of the Capitol.

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