Yesterday, Congress resumed negotiations on a long-term budget bill to take effect when the current 3-week Continuing Resolution (“CR”) (H.J. Res. 48) expires on April 8. In order to pass something by that date, Congress would have to agree on a package very soon—probably by the end of this week.
Ironically, one of the biggest hurdles to passing a long-term budget bill has nothing to do with the budget—instead it has to do with policy. Indeed, the over 500 riders attached to H.R. 1, which passed the House (but not the Senate) in February, have created such a deep divide in Congress that they are largely responsible for the delay in passing a 6-month CR. As others have discussed, these riders do everything from defunding Planned Parenthood to preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating mercury pollution from cement plants.
Most Republicans have stated that they will refuse to vote for a budget bill unless it contains policy amendments. As a senior GOP aide recently stated: “A bill without any riders cannot pass the House.” House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) is facing enormous pressure, mainly from the 87 freshmen Republicans, to reject a package unless it includes riders and makes deep budget cuts. Many of these freshmen were among the 54 Republicans who voted against the current CR due, in large part, to its lack of riders.
On the other hand, most Democrats view these riders as deal breakers. “I think when we begin to allow an ideological agenda that says, what we're really trying to do in this budget is not make progress toward deficit reduction but intentionally target a few long-established programs that have demonstrated [benefits] . . . I wouldn't stand for that," Sen. Coons (D-DE) told the Financial Times this week. Many Democrats agree — Sen. Wyden (D-OR) and 33 other Senators recently sent a letter to Sen. Byrd (D-WV), the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, urging Democratic budget negotiators to demand that environmental riders be removed from any budget bill. Some Democrats even admit that they would support legislation that makes very steep spending cuts, as long as it’s free of policy amendments.
It’s a sad day when one of the most insurmountable obstacles to passing a budget bill is something that shouldn’t even have been part of the budget debate in the first place. Policy provisions have no place in a spending bill, as they delay the process, impair transparency, and violate Congressional rules. With each stopgap spending measure, it seems increasingly likely that at least a few riders will be included in any final legislation. However, this shouldn’t stop us from encouraging our representatives in Congress to focus on spending—not making policy—and keep future CRs clean.