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Murray, Collins, Granger, DeLauro

How Congress jammed itself on spending

After Congress jammed through a massive $1.7 trillion omnibus funding package just before Christmas last year, party leaders vowed that they’d finally get back to regular order by passing the 12 individual appropriations bills to fund the federal government.

There was all-new leadership at the Senate Appropriations Committee for the 118th Congress. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) took over as chair and vice chair. The House Appropriations panel had a new chair in Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas). Along with Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top House Democrat on the committee, the Four Corners were all women for the first time in history.

This year was going to be different. Or so they said.

However, 2023 turned out to be an abject failure on the appropriations front. It wasn’t these four lawmakers’ fault, but Congress will be forced to deal with the consequences of this situation immediately when they return next month for Washington’s next big fight over spending.

“January is not going to be an enjoyable month, let me just say that,” Collins said this week. “So, happy New Year to all of you.”

While the Senate Appropriations Committee approved all 12 bills with strong bipartisan margins, only three of those measures passed on the floor. The first three-bill minibus cleared the Senate on Nov. 1, and the chamber hasn’t considered any additional funding bills since.

House GOP leaders, meanwhile, walked away from the spending levels spelled out in May’s Fiscal Responsibility Act agreement, opting to cut spending by another $100 billion. Of course, that partisan approach didn’t go over well with Democrats and led to the House compiling an abysmal track record. The House has passed only seven of the 12 bills. House GOP leaders were forced to pull a few bills from the floor. They even lost outright when trying to pass the Agriculture bill on a party-line vote.

Both chambers are now gone for the holidays, and there’s still no agreement on a topline spending number three months into FY2024. Absent congressional action, there’ll be a partial government shutdown on Jan. 19, with a full shutdown on Feb. 2.

Speaker Mike Johnson is already privately floating the idea of a year-long CR — effectively throwing in the towel on FY2024 appropriations. A full-year CR means roughly $100 billion in spending cuts, three-quarters on the non-defense side.

If there’s another short-term CR that doesn’t run through Sept. 30 — the end of the fiscal year — a 1% across-the-board cut of $50 billion-plus kicks in under the Fiscal Responsibility Act starting in April.

Here’s an explainer from House Appropriations Committee Democrats on the various scenarios.

“Come April 30, if House Republicans have not let us finish our work, there will be catastrophic consequences felt by the American people,” DeLauro said in a statement.

For her part, Collins told us she’d “argue strenuously against” a year-long CR.

“Our non-defense bills, if you add them all up, it is less than a 1% increase over last year,” Collins said. “So it’s not like we went crazy on spending. They are fiscally responsible bills.”

During a private Senate GOP lunch earlier this week, Collins gave a presentation to Republican senators about the negative impacts of a year-long CR on defense and national security. Collins noted that it would result in a 30% cut to the shipbuilding budget, for example.

Murray said a year-long CR would be “unprecedented and reckless” because it would “lock in outdated spending plans and devastating across-the-board cuts while locking all of us out of any kind of thoughtful decision-making process.”

“To avoid a shutdown… we need to push House Republicans to get serious about the deal they pushed for in the first place, so that we can finally start conferencing and passing bipartisan funding bills,” Murray said.

However, the fact that the Senate has only passed three of the 12 funding bills makes it hard for Senate appropriators to argue that the House should simply adopt the Senate’s approach of adhering to levels set in the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

Congress’ choices: One option would be to punt the Jan. 19 partial government shutdown deadline to Feb. 2. This would be a time-buying exercise and wouldn’t resolve anything really.

Hill leaders could also pass another short-term CR — even though Johnson has said he won’t — and hope to have a deal in place before the end of April. Spending cuts come April 30, but the real deadline is in mid-April.

Congress could agree on a topline number and pass all 12 bills individually — like the old days! — or do a series of “minibuses” or even an omnibus, although that would never fly with House Republicans.

Both chambers also will need to focus on the massive national-security supplemental funding bill for Ukraine and border security — if a deal comes together over the holidays.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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