Is Congress a serious legislative body or not?
Last week the House again flunked that test, this time with the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill.
An August 2011 bipartisan agreement headed off the United States defaulting on its debt when Congress passed the Budget Control Act (BCA), which established caps on fiscal 2013 spending on defense and non-defense activities. It was a first step toward overall debt reduction by cutting some $1 trillion from previously planned spending over the next 10 years.
Congress wrote into the BCA an unusual provision rightly titled “Enforcement of Discretionary Spending Caps,” which was supposed to make sure that the caps for fiscal 2013 spending levels could not be changed.
The BCA said “any bill . . . that would cause the discretionary spending limits . . . [in the BCA] to be exceeded” would “not be in order in the House.” That meant any member could make a point of order and halt any such bill’s consideration.
Or so you would think.
The bill brought to the floor last week exceeded the BCA cap for defense by $7.5 billion. No one made a point of order.
However, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) noted during the early debate “that a new point of order was created under” BCA and “under that part of the act . . . the entire bill is technically out of order because the entire bill exceeds the BCA caps by $7.5 billion.”
Mulvaney raised the issue while arguing for one of his own proposed amendments to the bill that was ruled out of order because it exceeded a spending cap set by the House Budget Committee. He pointed out the irony that upholding a point of order against his amendment would prevent “something that everyone has supported in the past, a good governance issue, while allowing the entire bill, which also violates the same point of order, to proceed.”
That wasn’t the only effort to get the bill back to the BCA limits. Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif)., Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Adam Smith (Wash.) sponsored an amendment that reduced the fiscal 2013 defense bill by $7.6 billion. As Lee put it, “A deal is a deal. While many of us did not support the discretionary caps under the Budget Control Act, our amendment simply brings Pentagon spending in line with the law.” As written, she said, “not a single penny would come from active duty and National Guard personnel accounts or from the Defense Health Program.”
Van Hollen noted that the BCA defense cap had been supported by the Republican chairmen of the House Budget, Armed Services and Appropriations committees. He quoted Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), who last year said, “Tough choices will have to be made, particularly when it comes to defense and national security priorities, but shared sacrifice will bring shared results.”
Calling the defense bill a “violation of that  bipartisan agreement,” Van Hollen said, “Because this bill dramatically increased that level above what was requested — the reality is the other bills that are coming through the Appropriations Committee are taking very deep cuts — deep cuts to education, deep cuts to health-care programs.”
Those health-care cuts are not coming to the Pentagon’s health-care program — just the opposite. The House approved an amendment that prohibited the Defense Department from increasing the enrollment fees for retirees in its Tricare for Life program. Those fees are below what other government employees pay for health care and far below civilian levels.
Beyond that, the House last week renewed the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, which in 2013 will get $263 million — not sought by the administration. For more than 20 years, Congress has inserted this money for the Pentagon to run research programs, through contractors, into breast, prostate and other cancers, as well as other medical problems. They added another $15 million for spinal cord injury research, for example.
There was one bit of light in the House last week. It was a bipartisan match struck by Mulvaney and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.); they offered an amendment to reduce the overall fiscal 2013 defense base budget by $1.1 billion. That would bring it back to the Pentagon spending figure approved for this year.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), a member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the issue, opposed the amendment.
“The Department of Defense has already sustained significant budget reductions,” he said.
Frank, in explaining his vote, said, “My only reluctance on this amendment is I’m embarrassed by the fact that it’s only a billion, but I think the gentleman from South Carolina made a correct decision.”
When a voice vote was taken, the acting chair announced that the “no’s appeared to have it,” according to the Congressional Record.
When a recorded vote was taken hours later, the Mulvaney-Frank amendment was approved, 247 to 167. It turned out the two had been collaborating for months since they had similar reduction amendments last year, both of which lost because Republicans would not vote for Frank’s plan, while Democrats would not vote for Mulvaney’s.
As Frank would say on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Thursday, “In the current climate it’s easier for me to get my people to vote with Mick [Mulvaney] than for Mick to get his people to vote for me.”
There is a lesson there for the post-November lame-duck session, when Congress has to face possibly going over the fiscal cliff.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.