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A (very) brief history of ‘laddered’ stopgap appropriations

Congress utilized a similar approach to Israeli aid in the George Bush administration

President George Bush, seen here at the Jan. 30, 1992 State of the Union, with Vice President Dan Quayle, left and Speaker Tom Foley, faced off with appropriators on aid to Israel, resulting in a “laddered” approach to some federal spending.
President George Bush, seen here at the Jan. 30, 1992 State of the Union, with Vice President Dan Quayle, left and Speaker Tom Foley, faced off with appropriators on aid to Israel, resulting in a “laddered” approach to some federal spending. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call)

The “laddered” stopgap funding concept, which much of Washington is trying to wrap its arms around, has actually been implemented before.

Speaker Mike Johnson said last week that Republicans are considering a new approach to stopgap funding that would extend pieces of current appropriations for different time periods, effectively setting up a series of funding cliffs while avoiding a single deadline that could trigger a partial government shutdown for all agencies. Senior Democratic appropriators warned that a laddered approach would complicate the funding process and could be difficult to implement.

Still, there is precedent for such a scenario.

In 1991, President George Bush’s GOP administration was negotiating with a Democratic Congress over spending and policy issues. Needing more time to wrap up talks with the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 bearing down, they enacted a monthlong continuing resolution, and then another running though Nov. 14.

The twist on that second CR was that one of the annual spending bills got a longer lease on life: What was then the Foreign Operations bill was extended through March 31, 1992. Then, as now, Israel was in the foreign aid spotlight; by September 1991, over 400,000 Jews had emigrated from the soon-to-be former Soviet Union as well as Ethiopia with many more to come, and Israel requested $10 billion in loan guarantees over five years to provide housing for the newcomers.

Pro-Israel members of Congress wanted to attach the provision to the fiscal 1992 Foreign Operations bill, earning the measure a veto threat from the president. Bush backed the idea in concept, but thought it too provocative given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was concerned the Israelis would build settlements in disputed territory, and preferred to carve out space for peace talks that would ultimately be held in Madrid starting the following month.

So to avoid setting up a “cliff” for foreign aid funding while talks were ongoing, congressional leaders agreed to delay the end-date, for that bill only, through the following March.

Still, despite a last-ditch compromise attempt hatched by then-Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., talks on the loan guarantee provision crumbled and time ran out before the March stopgap deadline. Congress enacted a CR covering foreign aid spending for the remainder of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 1992.

Finally, after a year of negotiations, Bush got on board with a loan guarantees package and lawmakers inserted it into the final fiscal 1993 Foreign Operations bill.

This lone example doesn’t necessarily mean lawmakers in 2023 are ready to pile onto the concept, broached last week by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., and publicly touted by Johnson.

“I’ll unpack for you what that means here in the coming days, but potentially you would do a CR that extends individual pieces of the appropriations process, individual bills,” Johnson said Thursday. “We’ll see how that goes. I think we can build consensus around it.”

Days later, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Johnson acknowledged the need for another stopgap bill to avert a partial government shutdown after Nov. 17, which he’s said should extend agency budget authority through Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 15, 2024, to avoid getting backed up against Christmas.

“The reason I look a little haggard this morning … is I was up late last night. We worked through the weekend on a stopgap measure,” Johnson said, while adding that work on the regular appropriations bills would not stop in the meantime. “We recognize that we may not get all the appropriations bills done by this deadline of Nov. 17, but we’re going to continue in good faith.”

Harris, a senior appropriator as well as House Freedom Caucus member with credibility in both camps, believes such a plan could incentivize conservatives opposed to a CR to vote for it, a source familiar with his thinking said.

House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., was pointed in her criticism of such a process.

“I think the speaker doesn’t have a clue. …He doesn’t know about the appropriations process,” she said. “That’s 12 shutdowns. What are we talking about? I say I have no idea what that means and I don’t believe the speaker has any idea of what it means.”

Still, having a precedent to point to might help with any explanations.

House Republicans are set to discuss the upcoming stopgap legislation at their conference meeting Tuesday morning.

David Lerman contributed to this report.

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