End of a Long Run of Congressional Activity… Defense Committees get Down to Work… A Summer of Spending Headaches…
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are back in Washington this week for legislative activity before a planned two-week July 4th holiday recess. The next few days mark the conclusion of a busy 11-week run in which one chamber or the other (or both) was in session.
The Senate returns Tuesday to take up a federal judicial nomination. In the House, the Rules Committee will prepare a handful of bills for consideration, including H.R. 3799, the CHOICE Arrangement Act and H.R. 3564, the Middle Class Borrower Protection Act of 2023.
National Defense Authorization Act Takes Shape…
This is an important week for Washington’s defense community. Both the House and Senate Armed Services committees will meet to consider massive defense bills known as the National Defense Authorization Act. These “mark ups” were postponed due to ongoing negotiations over the debt limit in May. Now, the committees finally get down to work.
The NDAA legally authorizes defense spending and sets key Pentagon programs and policies. The bills will authorize $886 billion in defense funding, and will address a range of major defense issues including retention and recruiting challenges, major research and development initiatives, the creation of a Space National Guard, and a host of key procurement programs. Both the Department of Defense’s abortion leave policy and the location of SPACECOM’s headquarters are expected to be in play during the meetings.
On Wednesday, the House Committee—chaired by Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers—will meet for an all-day session. The Senate committee will consider its bill in closed door meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.
Once approved by the committee, the legislation is expected to be considered by the full House in July. The Senate floor schedule is less clear. Congress has passed the NDAA each year for more than six decades.
Spending Headaches on the Horizon…
Congress was preoccupied for much of the first half of the year by the looming vote to raise the statutory limit on the nation’s debt, which now sits at more than $31 trillion. A “clean” increase to the debt ceiling was never a realistic option, and eventually President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy came to terms on a negotiated compromise that suspended the debt limit and made modest cuts to future spending.
Few Members loved the final product, but it at least allowed Congress to move forward on funding the government for the next fiscal year. Because the final deal established overall spending levels and included an incentive for Congress to complete its annual spending bills, some were cautiously optimistic that the appropriations process would proceed more efficiently than in recent years.
That optimism is eroding. Here’s why.
Under the regular order, the House and Senate appropriations committees draft, amend and approve twelve individual spending bills that provide funding for the various programs, projects, and activities of the government. Then, the full House and Senate bring up each committee-passed bill for debate and a vote. Later, the differences of the House and Senate-approved bills are reconciled, and the final product is brought back before each chamber for final approval before being sent to the President for his signature. All of that must happen for each bill prior to Oct. 1, the start of the next fiscal year. Failure to do so results in a government shutdown unless Congress adopts a Continuing Resolution that temporarily maintains current spending into the next fiscal year.
That arcane process, which is ripe for reform, hasn’t been successfully completed since the 1990s.
Today, Congress operates on an implicit understanding that the House and Senate won’t individually approve most appropriations bills. Rather, the committee-drafted legislation is often compiled into a massive Omnibus spending bill. The Omnibus, which exceeds a trillion dollars in spending, provides a vehicle to passage and keeps the government operating, but many rank-and-file members dislike that approach because they are forced to vote on a thousand-page bill that they haven’t seen—and often just before a shutdown.
This year, the debt deal established slightly lower spending levels and imposed an additional one percent across the board cut if the appropriations bills are not approved. But House conservatives who opposed the debt deal are still pushing for further cuts, and House leaders have allowed appropriators to draft bills at levels lower than those agreed upon. This creates a scenario where the Democratic led-Senate and the Republican-led House are playing off of two entirely different sheets of music. The difference is more than $100 billion—a rounding error compared to the nation’s overall financial situation but a significant divide when it comes time to merge the bills, especially given the complexities of the narrow Republican majority.
Differences in spending levels between chambers have been overcome before. But with only a few votes to spare, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the demands of conservatives, and a return to the bipartisan coalition that passed the debt legislation in the first place would almost certainly imperil his speakership.
None of this bodes well for a smooth appropriations process, which is important not just to Members of Congress and government managers, but also states, universities, researchers, law enforcement, community leaders, civic organizations, and any other entity that has sought federal funding for the next fiscal year.
Whether appropriators can chart a workable path forward this summer will have a significant impact on congressional productivity over the last half of the year.
EP’s Daylight Savings Time Update… No change.