Two months from now, as the September 30 end-of-the-fiscal-year deadline approaches, official Washington will be wrapped up in multiparty negotiations over a spending bill to keep the government running. That's when we’ll find out if Senate Republicans are serious about getting spending under control.
Let me explain.
The budgetary framework for the U.S. government is relatively simple: Both houses pass a budget resolution in the spring setting topline numbers and giving direction to the relevant authorizing and appropriating committees to do their specific work, authorizing and funding specific agencies and activities of the federal government. Then the relevant authorizing and appropriations committees send their bills to the floor of each house, each house passes them, conference committees are convened if necessary, conference reports are sent to the floor of each house, and eventually, 12 appropriations bills are sent to the president for his signature. Tedious, but simple.
It hasn’t worked that way in practice for a long time. In fact, in the nearly 50 years the current budget framework has been in place, Congress has only passed its required appropriations bills on time four times – in fiscal years 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997.
This year will be no different. Congress will not pass 12 annual appropriations bill and send them to President Biden before September 30.
Instead, as the September 30 deadline approaches, Congress will buy itself time by passing what’s called a “Continuing Resolution,” which basically allows the government to continue spending at the same rate and on the same programs as was authorized for the previous year.
Then, using the time it’s bought itself, Congress typically will take all 12 appropriations bills and roll them into one gigantic “omnibus” bill, and pass that through both houses, and then send it to the president.
The amount of time Congress buys for itself is crucial, because that will determine who’s in power (and, therefore, who’s got leverage) at the time the final negotiations over a full-year spending bill take place.
Everyone assumes Republicans will take control of the House in the November elections, meaning they will hold the majority once January arrives. And while no one is sure what the outcome will be in the Senate, no one doubts that Senate Republicans will, at the very least, be in a position to have great influence over the outcome – even if their efforts to recapture the majority fall short in November, Democrats would still need significant support from Republicans to move a spending bill past a potential GOP filibuster.
Because they will be passing a bill to allow the government to continue spending at the same rate and on the same programs as the previous year, the sticking point in the September negotiation won’t be the size or the content of the spending bill, but its duration. Liberals will want it to last only through mid-December, so they can negotiate another spending bill for a longer duration while they still control things on Capitol Hill. If conservatives are smart – and willing to stand for principle – they’ll insist on a longer-term spending bill that lasts through late February or even March of next year, so House Republicans will be in the majority when the next spending bill is negotiated, so it will have a conservative stamp on it.
Here’s where things get dicey. House Republicans are in the minority. Because the minority in the House has little influence over anything – in the House, a majority of 218 can do just about anything it wants on any given day, while the minority can only observe and plan for the next time it’s in the majority – House Republicans will have little influence over the course of the September negotiations.
Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have far more power over the course of legislative negotiations. Because we’re talking about a spending bill, Senate Democrats will be required to muster at least 60 votes to move the spending bill past a potential GOP filibuster. That will require the assent of at least 10 Republicans.
In other words, if 41 Senate Republicans are willing to hold firm against the pressure that’s sure to be brought on them, they can hold up the September negotiations until agreement is reached that the September CR will keep the government funded through the end of this year and into February or March, when Republicans will be the majority party in the House and, maybe, the Senate, too.
Grassroots activists ask me all the time if there’s really that much difference between the two parties when it comes to Congress. “Seems spending is always, always, always going up, up, up, and it doesn’t make any difference who’s in the majority,” they say, frustrated.
I understand and share that frustration. Here’s an opportunity for Senate Republicans to show us they’re serious about fiscal discipline, and give us a reason to end our frustration.
Jenny Beth Martin is Honorary Chairman of Tea Party Patriots Action.