This is the odd, gaptoothed version of the U.S. government that the House GOP has sketched out over the past eight days in a series of spending bills that would reopen departments and agencies one piece at a time.
The House has passed 11 bills, each funding just one agency or a handful of them. Eight more are in the works. The point is to make Democrats acknowledge something embarrassing — that even as they decry the shutdown, they will reject legislation to reopen popular agencies.
But, in the process, House Republicans have revealed something about themselves: The party of small government is struggling — mightily — to decide how much government it actually wants.
In some cases, lawmakers have sought to reopen agencies dear to their personal causes. In others, their requests have been based on complaints from folks at home. And in others, the GOP has simply acted to blunt media coverage of the shutdown.
On Wednesday, the House will vote on a bill that would ensure that the families of fallen U.S. service members receive death benefits during the impasse. GOP aides said they thought that death benefits were included in legislation that passed last week to ensure that troops would be paid during the shutdown. But news reports this week noted that several families had not received the payments of about $100,000 that are usually made within three days of the death of a service member.
“We’ve sent over . . . bills that keep critical portions of the federal government open,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), a member of the House’s GOP leadership, said Tuesday. “We have passed the bills in the House to open up the federal government, and yet the Senate refuses to act. That is not leadership.”
In a news conference Tuesday, President Obama rejected the piecemeal approach.
“What you’ve seen are bills that come up wherever Republicans are feeling political pressure, they put a bill forward,” he said. “And if there’s no political heat, if there’s no television story on it, then nothing happens. And you know, we don’t get to select which programs we implement or not.”
On Tuesday, the House passed its 11th small-scale funding bill since the shutdown began. It would provide $7.5 billion to keep the Head Start program — which serves low-income children — operating while most of the government stays shut. These measures are unlike the regular appropriations bills that traditionally fund the government, in that they provide funding only until the government is fully reopened.
In the House, the debate on the 11th bill followed a pattern set by the 10 others. Republicans were shocked that Democrats would refuse to fund something so valuable.
“This bill is about America’s children. About Head Start. There are no strings attached. It just funds Head Start,” said Rep. Candice S. Miller (Mich.).
Democrats were at least as shocked that Republicans wanted to reopen just this one program when so many others remain dark.
“Let’s shut down the shutdown” instead, said Rep. Gwen Moore (Wis.).
Altogether, these 11 bills would provide at least $266 billion in funding, which is a little more than a quarter of the “discretionary” spending required to fully reopen the government. One of them — guaranteeing pay for active-duty troops and civilian military employees — was approved by the Democratic-held Senate, and signed into law by Obama.
The rest have languished in the Senate. Which was partly the point. Republicans wanted to force Democrats into a no-win choice.
They could approve the miniature spending bills — but that would erase a painful impact of the shutdown, and ease the pressure on Republicans to end it. Or Democrats could refuse to act on the measures.
And then, Republicans hoped, share some of the blame.
“We must take every step necessary to relieve the pain of the shutdown and remain focused on sitting down at a table and reconciling our differences,” Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said in a statement. “The fact that the White House and Senate Democrats want to make their shutdown as tough on people as possible, to avoid negotiating, is frankly disturbing.”
But why did the GOP choose these parts of the government to reopen during the shutdown? It is hard to see a conservative vision at work here, because the bills also would help liberal priorities such as Head Start and the Women, Infants and Childrenfood-aid program.
And, in some cases, it’s hard to see any vision at all. The GOP bills would restart some programs, but in some cases leave similar ones mostly shut.
One measure, for instance, would provide money to fully reopen the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the midst of hurricane season. But, in a speech on the House floor, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) pointed out that the bill left out agencies that often work closely with FEMA in hurricane zones.
“They need to work as a team, and here we are with these bits and pieces of the government, and we think we’re going to patch this up. We’re not,” he said. “The fact is that the whole of government needs to be put back to work. That’s our argument.”
In the case of the National Institutes of Health bill, the legislation seemed to have a personal inspiration: Republicans mentioned their own connections to medical research. Rep. Todd Rokita (Ind.) spoke of his son Teddy, who has Angelman syndrome, a neuro-genetic disorder.
Work at NIH might help find a treatment or a cure. And Rokita said this was work that only the government would do.
“I . . . believe there are times that the private sector cannot reasonably be expected to do the research and development needed because the issue, the syndrome, the disease might be so rare that it is economically prohibitive from a return-on-investment perspective,” Rokita said.
In other cases, the bills seemed to be partly inspired by media coverage of the shutdown. On the second day of the impasse — after Republicans had promised a bill to reopen national parks and the Mall’s monuments — a reporter asked Cantor: “Why are you pushing for monuments to be open instead of, say, Head Start preschools for low-income children? Isn’t it all important?
“That is coming as well, okay?” he replied.
The next day, indeed, a bill to fund Head Start was introduced.
An aide to Cantor said the question didn’t trigger the legislation, saying, “It was already in the works.”