Members Sour on Speaker Johnson’s Fiscal Lemonade
New House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) inherited a mess. Conservative efforts to return the congressional budget process to regular order were months behind schedule. Then an intra-party power play derailed House efforts to complete the schedule necessary to turn the group project in late, with a generous, 45-day extension. With that extension deadline approaching — this Friday — life handed Johnson a sack full of lemons, and he chose to make lemonade.
On Saturday, Johnson unveiled the details of a plan to fund the government into early next year, avoiding mid-December deadlines that create unhealthy pressure to agree to omnibus spending bills. Johnson’s plan would fund agencies covered by four appropriations bills (Military Construction-VA, Agriculture, Energy-Water and Transportation-HUD) until January 19, and it would fund agencies covered by the other eight appropriations bills until February 2.
Funding different agencies until different dates is a novel appropriations strategy members are describing as a “two-step continuing resolution” (CR) or “laddered” CR. The point of the different deadlines is to create time to actually complete the appropriations process by addressing each appropriations bill on its own merits.
“This two-step continuing resolution is a necessary bill to place House Republicans in the best position to fight for conservative victories,” Johnson explained. The idea will stop the absurd holiday-season omnibus tradition of massive, loaded up spending bills introduced right before the Christmas recess.
House leadership posted draft language for the bill on Saturday, starting a 72-hour clock, so that the House could vote on the bill as early as Tuesday evening.
If the two-tiered CR fails to pass, Johnson has said his backup plan to offer a CR with minor spending tweaks through the end of the fiscal year in September 2024. In other words, this is likely House conservatives’ final opportunity to return to regular order this year.
“Republicans have got to come together on this,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins urged. “They are hurting themselves in terms of the 2024 election if they cannot come together and lead.”
Republicans have not come together behind Johnson’s CR proposal. As of Monday, at least three conservative and Trumpian members — likely more — said they would not vote for the bill over the lack of spending cuts. With House Republicans on their own four-yard-line, members on the right want Johnson to throw it deep, instead of securing a first-down.
On the other flank, moderate U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), a House appropriator, said the two-tiered CR was unrealistic because Senate Democrats would not accept the plan. According to this logic, House Republicans should let Democrats call their plays for them and only take yardage their opponents agreed to concede.
To double-click on that point, why should House Republicans (or Senate Republicans, for that matter) adopt Senate Democrats’ policy priorities as the standard of what is realistic? Why isn’t it ever the other way around? In theory, passing laws through a divided Congress should require compromises between the parties’ differing priorities. But that should come after those policy priorities are established.
In practice, however, House Republicans have trampled most of their negotiating leverage into the mire through shameful displays of disunity and needless schedule delays. To regain negotiating leverage, Johnson needs time to work and a conference united around at least some agenda that can move forward.
“Speaker Johnson has a very narrow margin in the House. He can only lose four votes. If he loses five Republican votes, he cannot pass a bill that Democrats oppose,” explained Family Research Council Senior Director of Government Affairs Quena Gonzalez on “Washington Watch.”
In addition to failing to coalesce around a stopgap spending plan, at least six Republicans have delayed the schedule even further by sinking appropriations bills due to a rider securing pro-life conscience protections in Washington, D.C. “The idea that it would trip up a bill is ridiculous,” Gonzalez said, noting that Republicans have been united behind it since 2015. “This is standard policy. It’s one of dozens of pro-life riders that we see pass every year.”
“The conservatives have kind of made a mess,” Perkins lamented. “Now the moderates feel emboldened.”
Senate Democrats are only too glad to pile on the fumble in the Republican backfield. Last week, Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called Johnson’s two-tiered funding proposal “the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” This comes from the senator who blocked a bill to protect children born alive after a failed abortion.
“We are going to pass a clean short-term CR,” insisted U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “The only question is whether we do it stupidly and catastrophically or we do it like adults. There’s nothing inherently conservative about making simple things super convoluted, and all of this nonsense costs taxpayer money.” Nothing exudes maturity quite like playground insults and insisting on your own way, and that prologue typified the upside-down logic that followed.
The word “simple” describes something that cannot be subdivided into constituent parts (as opposed to “complex”). The U.S. federal government, which is run by 25 cabinet-level administrators, currently spends north of $6 trillion annually and should be funded through 12 appropriations bills, is as far from “simple” as imaginable. Funding this behemoth is already so “convoluted” that Congress hired a whole office full of researchers to analyze the budget and yet still disagrees about the best ways to raise and spend money.
The plan that senior-level Democratic Senators criticized as “super convoluted” and “the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of” amounts to this: pay for some things until one date and pay for other things until another date. This is something that every American householder can understand.
Johnson’s budget proposal is just common sense, and there’s no way its naysayers can convince the American people otherwise except by deliberately presenting it as something that it is not. Hence, they scaremonger and obfuscate it with unfamiliar jargon, but they refuse to engage with the substance of the proposal itself.
Setting aside the bluster, the real reason why so many in Congress — on both sides of the aisle — dislike Johnson’s two-tiered CR is because it represents an effort to return Congress to real fiscal accountability. Its only purpose is to put House Republicans in a position to finally return to the regular order that has eluded them all year. But regular order means voting individually on amendments and spending bills, forcing members onto the record for or against certain proposals. Many in Congress dislike that accountability and would prefer to hide behind a massive omnibus spending package, where they can defend their lack of discipline by saying, “Well, I had to vote to fund the military.”
But omnibus spending is unsustainable because it does not restore fiscal accountability or sanity. The Moody’s credit rating agency on Friday downgraded America’s credit outlook to “negative,” citing a lack of “effective fiscal policy measures to reduce government spending or increase revenues” causing “fiscal deficits [to] remain very large.” Contra Mr. Schatz, omnibus spending is the “nonsense” that “costs taxpayer money;” Johnson’s time-buying measure would create space to actually reduce spending through the proper method.
Back in September, some fiscal conservatives blocked a conservative short-term funding bill, preferring a government shutdown to any type of CR-style bill. But they didn’t get their way. They only forced then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to pivot to a less conservative funding bill that could win Democratic votes.
The same situation is shaping up again as government funding expires on Friday. Roll Call reports that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is racing the House with his own short-term CR that would extend spending for all agencies until January 19 — not enough time to finish all the appropriations bills — hoping to force another year-long CR in January. If House Republicans torpedo their own speaker’s bills, they would create a situation where House members would have to choose between a bill crafted by Senate Democrats or a government shutdown. And, as Perkins said, “What is accomplished by a government shutdown at this point?”
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.