AUGUST 5, 2023
Congress is already off to a slow start on its annual work on funding federal agencies. Only one of 12 bills has been approved by the House, and not one has been through the Senate.
This means the best-case scenario is for Congress to pass a stopgap funding bill ahead of the Sept. 30 fiscal-year deadline to keep agencies running on their current budgets while lawmakers try to hash out their mess.
But House Republicans are governed by a small band of far-right conservatives who traditionally hate such short-term continuing resolutions, as the measures are known on Capitol Hill. And the most recent charges against former president Donald Trump have angered those lawmakers, some of whom are threatening to block any bill that provides funding to the Justice Department unless they get to chisel away at money that in any way contributes to special counsel Jack Smith’s investigations.
“I will not vote to fund a weaponized government while it politically persecutes not only President Trump but all conservative Americans,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a close ally of both the ex-president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said in a statement after the announcement Tuesday of charges related to the January 2021 insurrection.
Calling FBI officers “henchmen,” she added, “Until we restore the FBI and the Department of Justice to the esteemed institutions they once were, I will not vote to fund these communist organizations.”
Other prominent House Republicans have used similar language. McCarthy referred to a “two-tier system of justice,” while Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) accused the Justice Department of “trying to suppress the will of the voters and meddle with the election,” given Trump’s lead in the GOP presidential primary.
No matter how detached from the political reality that rhetoric might be, Republicans will be under enormous pressure from that far-right flank and outside activists to keep the government open only if Smith’s investigation is essentially shut down.
“This will not fly with the American people. It’s long past time for House Republicans to defund Jack Smith — and to impeach Biden and [Attorney General Merrick] Garland for their corruption, obstruction, and election interference,” Mike Davis, a conservative legal operative, wrote in an essay that the ex-president blasted out to his supporters.
Obviously, Senate Democrats and President Biden will reject any funding deal that uses the congressional power of the purse to pick and choose which investigations the Justice Department and FBI undertake. And that has increased the chances of a shutdown of some length starting in October.
Even if they agree to a short-term funding bill that keeps the government open into the late fall or winter, lawmakers face another hurdle because of a quirky provision in the earlier debt deal that sets up a domino effect for the rest of the federal budgets. If they cannot complete all their funding bills — even if the only remaining roadblock is the dispute over the Justice Department — every agency could face an across-the-board cut in federal budgets next spring.
“It would be, I think, irresponsible not to plan for a 1 percent cut at this point, because the usual outcome of Congress is a stalemate,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said in an interview Friday.
Massie has been the main supporter of this across-the-board cut, called a sequester by fiscal experts. His original plan called for an “automatic CR” starting on Oct. 1 that would keep the government open but would decrease agency budgets by 1 percent as a way to drive lawmakers eventually to approve full-year plans. But he also knew this strategy would avert any government shutdowns, which could politically help Republicans because they have traditionally lost these fiscal battles over the past decade.
“Listen, we need to avoid getting blamed for a shutdown a year from now,” Massie recalled telling GOP colleagues in a meeting last November. “And here’s how we do it.”
When McCarthy struggled to get enough GOP votes to win the speaker’s gavel in January, Massie extracted a promise from the incoming speaker to support this provision as part of McCarthy’s broader secret deal with the far right.
“It actually made it into the unpublished document that we would do this. And that document was just more like a term sheet. It didn’t have precisely how everything would get implemented,” he said.
So, as McCarthy’s lieutenants mapped out the debt deal with White House officials in May, they reworked Massie’s proposal. There is no automatic extension of government funding in the fall, but if all 12 spending bills are not signed into law by Jan. 1, agency chiefs will have to begin to plan out how they will administer this 1 percent cut — including at the Pentagon.
By the end of April, if there’s still no resolution to all the 2024 funding bills, every agency must administer a 1 percent reduction in a fairly painful way: a full year’s worth of cuts hitting in just the final five months of the fiscal year.
Massie would like to see language written into the spending bills so that if one of them gets a bipartisan, bicameral agreement and is signed by Biden, those agencies would be spared any automatic trims.
“Get those into law, and then those are held harmless going forward,” Massie said.
But Democrats privately say they will not go along with such a plan because that could give Republicans an incentive to work only on the bills funding their favorite departments — think Pentagon and Veterans Affairs — and then let the 1 percent cut hit the other agencies.
The Senate Appropriations Committee rejected the House GOP’s partisan, miserly spending levels that exceed the $100 billion in original caps set by Biden and McCarthy. Senators, however, worked together in a bipartisan fashion and passed all 12 bills through their committee, with sweeping votes that set up a messy fall negotiation.
The House Appropriations Committee had started work but couldn’t finish before the August recess on the bill for the Health and Human Services and Labor departments, and another for the Commerce, Justice and State departments.
Democrats were already unanimously opposed to the draft proposal because of its punitive cuts to FBI salaries and funding for U.S. attorneys, along with other provisions. And now, either in committee or before the full House, Republicans will be likely to try to defund Smith’s investigation.
The easiest way to handle this mess would be to pass a few short-term spending bills to buy more time, to see whether lawmakers can reach a broad deal on almost all the funding bills.
But Massie vehemently opposes these measures because he views them as a gateway toward eventually forcing one up-or-down vote on an extensive bill that basically funds the entire federal government just before Christmas.
“I will not be voting for a bunch of short-term CR’s. Ain’t going to happen,” he said. Massie would even use his perch on the Rules Committee, where he has two hard-right allies, to block the stopgap bill from even reaching the full House.
“I could, in good conscience, vote against a short-term CR in the Rules Committee,” he said.
A series of bad steps seems to be set up to unfold: Some form of government shutdown in October; more battles in the early winter over some legislation; and finally, in the early spring, if there’s no resolution to funding the Justice Department, every agency being hit with an across-the-board cut.
Almost no one will be happy with those outcomes. Traditional Republican security hawks will fume about the reduced Pentagon money. Democrats will be upset that domestic agencies have to cut their budgets in such a brief a period. Staunch conservatives will see the 1 percent cut as too small to really rein in debt.
But Massie will be pleased.
“If it comes to pass — that the bill that Joe Biden signed causes every department to get a real 1 percent cut — that is a vindication of my vote for the debt-limit deal,” he said.
Courtesy/Source: Washington Post