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Do-Nothing Amendments Give Lawmakers Bragging Opportunity About Successes

Provisions have no real-world impact

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., is among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this midterm cycle. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., is among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this midterm cycle. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House adopted amendments on a two-bill spending package last week purporting to redirect sums ranging from $100,000 to study the impact of a mineral found to cause cracking in concrete home foundations, to $36 million for “public safety and justice facility construction” at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

There’s just one catch: the provisions simply give the illusion of moving money around — with no real-world impact on agency funding priorities. The net financial impact of all 14 such amendments considered during debate on the $58.7 billion Interior-Environment and Financial Services measure — out of 87 total floor amendments on the bill — was precisely zero.

The standard language of this type of provision goes like this: “Page X, line X, after the dollar amount, insert “(reduced by $X)(increased by $X).” There’s nothing binding on the agency in question to spend the money a certain way. While ineffectual in practice, such amendments can hold symbolic value: they allow sponsors to tout their influence on the spending process, including in official descriptions circulated in advance of the vote and in floor speeches and news releases.

These so called plus-minus amendments also allow the majority party to appear charitable to the minority by allowing them floor time, and generally accepting such amendments, safe in the knowledge that no real money will change hands. In fact, of the 14 such amendments debated on the floor last week, 13 were sponsored by Democrats; in all, 11 of the Democratic amendments were adopted, all by voice vote.

Nonetheless, no Democrats ultimately voted in support of the underlying two-bill package, which passed the House on a 217-199 vote Thursday.

Tribal justice

Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, who is among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this midterm cycle, secured approval of the $36 million Bureau of Indian Affairs construction amendment.

In a press release, O’Halleran said his amendment “sets” that level of funding for replacing and building new tribal justice facilities; during floor debate, he said his amendment “suggests” the higher spending level. Either way, it was no skin off GOP appropriators’ back since no funding actually changed, and it allowed Republicans to tout their own devotion to tribal needs.

“I am happy to accept the gentleman’s amendment and work with him and the rest of my colleagues to address the public safety and justice construction needs in Indian Country,” said House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert of California.

Then there was a bipartisan amendment with Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, which advertises moving $1 million around within the Small Business Administration’s Office of Entrepreneurial Development to devote $600,000 to Women’s Business Centers, and $400,000 to Veterans Business Outreach Centers. Murphy in a statement said she “had serious concerns” with the broader bill given the insertion of “several poison pill riders,” but she added “I’m proud to secure this investment for our small businesses and veterans.”

Murphy is one of just four incumbent Democrats, along with O’Halleran, whose seats are considered “in play” by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Three Republicans, also making Gonzales’ list of the nation’s toughest House races, affixed their names to Murphy’s amendment: Steve Knight of California, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Don Bacon of Nebraska.

Another amendment, from Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, would encourage setting aside $1 million in SBA funds for technical assistance and outreach about existing programs to help employee-owned businesses, such as the 7(a) loan program.

Polis, who last month won the Democratic primary in his state’s gubernatorial race, in a floor speech cited Fort Collins, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing, maker of the popular Fat Tire Belgian Style Ale, as an example of a successful employee-owned firm.

Collapsing basements

Plus-minus amendments sometimes give appropriators a nudge to take their position seriously in future spending negotiations, supporters say. They might even get language supporting a particular goal written into a conference report on the spending bill, although the reports themselves are nonbinding. In the post-earmark ban period dating back to 2011, that may be the closest thing to “congressionally-directed spending” available to rank-and-file lawmakers.

Take two amendments, both adopted, from Connecticut Democrats Joe Courtney and John B. Larson, related to the mineral pyrrhotite, which has ravaged property values and local tax revenues in parts of their state in recent years. The concrete-cracking mineral has left a rash of crumbling and collapsing basements in their districts, from single family homes to military facilities and more.

Larson and Courtney put forward two amendments, one for each title of last week’s spending package: one that would back $100,000 for a U.S. Geological Survey map of pyrrhotite occurrences in the U.S., and one that would support $100,000 for the Treasury Department to study the financial impact on homeowners, mortgage lenders and local property taxes.

Courtney said he expects adoption of his amendments to result in report language being added in conference for agencies to consider when making funding decisions. “When you get these amendments passed, that’s routine,” he said, adding that he’s spoken with USGS officials about the issue previously but hadn’t gotten very far.

“They said that this was not sort of on their radar screen at this point,” Courtney said.

“What we’re adding to is the public opinion that’s needed, and the raising this to a level where other colleagues get to appreciate it,” added Larson, who said he thinks Republicans accepted their amendment because “I think they looked at it as being not harmful to the bill.”

Rep. Ted Poe is retiring after this Congress, but he used one of his last opportunities to influence federal spending to stump for $20 million in Maritime Heritage Program grants funded by the National Park Service. Poe and fellow Texas GOP Rep. Pete Olson want the money to go towards preserving the USS Texas, which was commissioned in 1914 and saw action in both world wars.

“It’s in bad shape, I mean, 104 years in seawater, and it needs to be restored like any other monument would be … to make this history not disappear,” Poe said. He compared it to “sense of Congress” resolutions that are nonbinding but allow lawmakers to express a point of view or possibly nudge a piece of legislation in a particular direction.

Other plus-minus amendments adopted during last week’s floor debate include:

  • Two amendments from Florida Democrat Darren Soto — one to support $500,000 for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service management of invasive species, which he said was a particular problem for his central Florida district’s Lake Hatchineha, and another advocating $468,000 for the National Estuary Program within EPA.
  • An amendment from Michigan Democrats Debbie Dingell and John Moolenaar purporting to back $250,000 in USGS Fisheries Program funds specifically for the agency’s Great Lakes Science Center.
  • A Denny Heck, D-Wash., amendment urging $500,000 in EPA funding be directed to the Clean Watershed Needs Survey, which is conducted every four years as mandated under the Clean Water Act in order to assess costs associated with meeting the law’s water quality requirements.
  • An amendment from Peter Welch, D-Vt., backing $5 million in funds from the Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry account that would help eradicate the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle which Welch said during floor debate since 2002 has “spread to 33 states, killing millions of trees, inflicting severe harm on the forest products industry, and costing municipalities and property owners millions of dollars.”

Making a point

Some lawmakers weren’t so lucky. Rep. Pramila Jayapal was disappointed that her amendment, which would express support for adding $12 million to the EPA’s Superfund account for cleanup of toxic waste sites, was rejected by voice vote.

The Washington Democrat said the House bill’s Superfund spending was inadequate and would “deeply” affect the Hanford and Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund sites. In Hanford, nuclear reactors drained radioactive and other hazardous waste into the Columbia River and penetrated nearby groundwater. The Duwamish River in Seattle was contaminated over decades as it served as an industrial corridor dating back to the early 1900s, according to the EPA.

Jayapal acknowledged her amendment was “to make a point. … It means that when the final conference committee comes together, that issue is up front and center.”

Calvert opposed Jayapal’s amendment on the floor, however, noting that GOP appropriators “attempted to find middle ground on enforcement while also prioritizing on-the-ground cleanup efforts that returns land to productive uses.”

It’s not entirely clear why Republicans opposed Jayapal’s amendment but not others offered by Democrats. Jayapal has been a vocal thorn in the GOP’s side, however, including a call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

It is very unusual for House members to ask for roll call votes on plus-minus amendments, which lessens the chances for success.

But Democratic Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina did just that for her amendment to push $742,000 for EPA Environmental Justice grants, which help minority, low-income and tribal populations comply with environmental regulations. It was rejected Wednesday on the floor, 194-218; all but eight Republicans voted against Adams’ amendment.

Watch: How Do Elections Impact Appropriations?

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