Vulnerable House Democrats anxious about stalled appropriations

Bipartisan dealmaking is lacking when it comes to annual spending bills

“I want them to sit here until they hammer out a deal," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
“I want them to sit here until they hammer out a deal," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 14, 2022 at 11:29am

Lawmakers universally loathe running the government on stopgap funding. But as the House voted last week to extend stagnant spending levels into the sixth month of the fiscal year, there was one particularly frustrated group.

Politically vulnerable House Democrats lamented the passage of a third continuing resolution for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, irritated that the pragmatic, bipartisan dealmaking they view as the hallmark of their campaigns and careers is lacking when it comes to the most basic of congressional responsibilities.

“This next month, or three weeks I should say, I don't want to see people leaving D.C. I don't want to see the negotiators taking pictures from their home districts, enjoying life as usual,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin said in an interview on Tuesday as the House passed stopgap legislation that would extend current funding levels through March 11.

“I want them to sit here until they hammer out a deal, because particularly with inflation, last year's budget would be a cut relative to today,” the Michigan Democrat added. “I don't know how many more of these I'm ever willing to vote on.”

Slotkin, who is part of the Democratic campaign arm’s “Frontline” program for vulnerable incumbents, said she debated whether to support last week’s continuing resolution but decided “as someone who was a federal government employee and responsible for military and civilian salaries, I just wasn't in a position to vote against it.”

One Frontline Democrat, New Jersey’s Josh Gottheimer, did break with the rest of his party and vote against the CR.

“Stop-gap measures for short-term government funding weaken our military and harm our national defense, our ability to protect our allies abroad, the ability for our states to plan critical infrastructure projects, and much more,” Gottheimer said in a statement.

Like Slotkin, Gottheimer called on negotiators to “stay at the table and work together until the last possible minute” to get a deal.

Iowa’s Cindy Axne, another Frontline Democrat, said in a statement that while she will never vote to allow a partial government shutdown, “preventing a shutdown is doing the bare minimum, and we need to do so much more than the minimum.”

“I hear bipartisan calls every week to ensure that America can compete on the world stage — but the nations we’re competing against are not funding their priorities 21 days at a time,” she said.

Do voters care?

For most vulnerable Democrats, the stopgap funding issue is hardly a political liability. Slotkin said she’s not had a ton of calls on it, and those she does hear from are mostly individuals and organizations who stand to benefit from government funding.

“I got approached on this by someone from the National Guard on my flight from Detroit to D.C.,” she said. “Now, that's someone who really understands how the military is funded.”

Voters in most districts won’t notice whether the government is funded on a stopgap under the previous year’s levels or a fresh appropriations package. But in Virginia, home to many government workers, the impact is a bit more profound.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said she’s heard from constituents calling for a full-year funding bill but this funding fight is not the same as ones in years past since there’s never been a real threat of an appropriations lapse.

“When we’re teetering towards government shutdowns, I mean it is an explosion of outreach,” she said. “And not just for the personal impacts that might be experienced by individual federal workers, but anyone who's running an office and planning for how do you handle things.”

Spanberger wasn’t keen to assign blame and said she was encouraged to hear appropriators made progress toward getting a full-year funding deal. But she said there needs to be more preparation for what should be a routine congressional task.

“I’m not an appropriator, but from an outside view there has to be a more effective path toward passing legislation, maybe just a month or two late,” Spanberger said. “There’s a lot of room to improve here.”

Another Virginia Frontline Democrat, Rep. Elaine Luria, is also tired of stopgaps. An Armed Services Committee member whose district is home to the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk, Luria has been particularly vocal about the impact continuing resolutions have on the Defense Department.

“I hate to see everything that we were going to add to the defense budget … to kind of lose some of that purchasing power for the Navy and shipbuilding,” she said.

Slotkin, Spanberger and Luria also have a deeper personal understanding of government funding than many lawmakers because they all served in national security roles. Slotkin held various defense and intelligence positions. She and Spanberger both worked for the CIA. And Luria spent two decades in the Navy, retiring as a commander.

Luria said she would be a lot more frustrated if appropriators hadn’t finally made some progress in negotiations. The fact that the continuing resolution included an anomaly, or exception to the stagnant funding, to allow for advanced procurement of the Navy's Columbia Class Submarine, “the number one priority of the Department of Defense,” was also encouraging, she said.

Luria already faced a tough reelection campaign in a district she flipped in 2018, where GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin won by 8 points in November. Redistricting could make things even harder, as Luria’s hometown of Norfolk is excluded under the redrawn map and more conservative areas are added to her district.

She wasn’t ready to point fingers at the other aside of the aisle or her party's leaders for the funding standoff.

“It's just a waste of time to place blame,” Luria said. “Let’s just get to the table and figure out how we get it across the finish line.”

Bringing home the bacon

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Luria and Axne’s reelection races a Toss-Up. Slotkin and Spanberger’s races Tilt Democratic. Gottheimer’s race is still rated Solid Democratic, despite the party recently adding him to the Frontline program.

In any race, especially the tight ones, lawmakers are eager to tout anything they’ve done in Congress that will directly benefit their districts. And one of the most obvious direct benefits is earmarks, or congressionally directed spending that Democrats who restored the previously banned practice last year are calling “community project funding.”

Although none of the aforementioned members mentioned earmarks in their frustration over the delayed omnibus, they each have millions on the line if the projects funded in the House appropriations bills make it into the final package.

Luria procured $19 million in earmarks in the House spending bills, including $8.2 million to implement a new regional public safety radio system for Virginia’s eastern shore and $5 million to replace a functionally obsolete bus operations and maintenance facility in Virginia Beach.

Slotkin’s haul would total $15.5 million, including $3.5 million each for water treatment plant improvements in Mason and Fowlerville.

Axne won inclusion of $10 million worth of earmarks, while Gottheimer secured $8.5 million and Spanberger, $6.4 million.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Calif., brought up earmarks in her floor remarks on the stopgap as one of the reasons she hoped to soon reach a deal on full-year appropriations.

“Of great importance to the people we represent, an omnibus would enact Community Project Funding that both Republicans and Democrats requested for their districts with strong community support,” she said. “From rebuilding local health and transportation infrastructure, helping veterans to find jobs, supporting small businesses, and expanding educational opportunities, these investments will revitalize our communities and strengthen them for years to come.”

The need to unlock funds authorized in the bipartisan infrastructure law is another reason Democrats, vulnerable or not, have frequently cited as reason to get an omnibus done. Any further delay on that may prompt more constituents to pay attention, Slotkin argued.

“If we explain to people that we aren't going to get our roads, our bridges, our broadband, internet, all the things that are coming with the $10 billion for Michigan, we will start getting calls,” she said. “So we better negotiate in earnest in the next three weeks.”