By Joshua C. Huder
With elections over, lawmakers make their way back to DC today. They will be faced with several pieces of important business, perhaps none more important than government spending. The current continuing resolution will expire December 9th. There was some expectation that omnibus legislation was being prepared. But with an unified Republican government around the corner, that has almost certainly changed. Prior to the election, congressional leaders were preparing an omnibus or a few minibuses (packages of 2 or 3 appropriations bills) to fund the government at the level stipulated in the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA). All pre-election signals indicated Congress was heading in this direction. The 12 appropriations bills that emerged from committee met the FY2017 BBA numbers, $1.07 trillion. It was widely expected that the House and Senate, with an incoming Democratic administration, would write their bills to the number, likely finding Democratic votes to push it across the finish as they had in previous bipartisan agreements.
That was before the election. Republicans sweeping victory last Tuesday has changed everything. And it starts with the feasibility of the speakership under unified government.
The biggest change is Paul Ryan’s (now continuing) speakership. Under a Democratic administration, the Speaker of the House has become the least wanted job in Washington. Speakers have been forced to negotiate with Democratic president to strike deals their own conference will not support. Boehner and Ryan have both been forced into this position since 2011. And it is a big reason why Ryan and his predecessor faced coup attempts soon after they took the top job. The balance between governing (such as passing spending bills, authorizations, etc) and representing the conference in negotiations was impossible. Governing meant losing their job. Keeping their job meant not governing. If Ryan had any political ambitions beyond the House, the speakership would have been catastrophic under divided government. Four years of presiding over a conference trying to overthrow him would consume his political career, tainting any future ambitions he may have had.
This dynamic changes with a Republican president. Ryan will now have a president who will sign spending bills at Republican levels. Further, he has a president who will likely sign all of his major policy proposals. Republicans will repeal Obamacare, enact tax reform, among a whole host of objectives they’ve failed to accomplish under divided government. This not only makes the speakership a much more fun job. It also means it is no longer a career killer.
With this in mind, the budget picture comes into clearer focus. Speaker Ryan could not pass a budget this year because he failed convince the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) to support the 2015 BBA. The HFC argued they didn’t support those numbers when they were passed. Therefore, they would not support appropriations bills brought to the floor at those levels. This, along with poison pill amendments from Democrats, killed the appropriations process in the House. It’s a big reason why Congress finds itself under a looming CR deadline.
If Paul Ryan really wants to be speaker in the 115th Congress, he needs the support of the politicians who refused to vote for his budget. If they won’t support an omnibus at the $1.07 trillion number outlined in the 2015 BBA, you can bet he will not push it in this lame duck session. Speaker Ryan’s political career rests on their shoulders. And for now, that means that omnibus legislation is likely in the trash. And CR legislation is beginning to be drafted.
With a new Congress and a new president, Speaker Ryan, Majority Leader McConnell, and the Trump administration will wait until March of next year to rewrite government spending. At that time they will have to address the debt ceiling and probably sequester if the current budget caps prevent them from enacting their policy visions. The timing may change. But the beginning of next year will set a new course for government spending.
Regardless, in the short term the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, negotiated by Boehner, McConnell, and Obama is gone. And any chance at omnibus legislation is likely gone with it.
Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.