To read much of the coverage — including some on this blog — you’d think that the threat of a government shutdown and other mischief that might be wrought by the hard right’s shenanigans had been defused. Now that a budget deal will fund the government and raise the debt ceiling into 2017, that means no more need to worry, right?
Well, unfortunately not. It turns out that there are still potential landmines with a lot of explosive power buried in the budget process that could wreak a lot of havoc. And they pose a big test for new House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee tell me that they are worried about the possibility of major sticking points looming over so-called “policy riders,” a threat that still remains even though Congress has agreed upon new spending levels that are higher than the caps imposed by the Budget Control Act, a.k.a. the sequester.
The problem is that, even though the bulk amount of spending has been agreed upon, Congress will have to pass a dozen or so individual appropriations bills that fill in the specific spending in different areas of government. Democrats note that half a dozen of these bills have already passed the House, and all 12 are public. They’ll have to be renegotiated to align with the new, higher spending levels.
But the already existing bills are currently loaded with policy riders on all sorts of conservative priorities, Democrats point out. Conservatives will likely pressure GOP leaders to keep these riders in, and pressure them to make them conditional on passing these bills — creating another leverage point that the right can try to exploit, potentially leading to sticking points that threaten government shutdowns.
Rep. Nita Lowey, the ranking Dem on the House Appropriations Committee, says this in an emailed statement:
“Passing this budget agreement and preventing a debt default is a positive step. But let’s be very clear – enacting an Omnibus spending bill in six weeks that includes hundreds of difficult policy and funding decisions is no simple task. There is still a long way to go before congratulating ourselves for avoiding a shutdown.”
To get a sense of what sort of policy riders we’re talking about here, read David Dayen’s good piece explaining how serious a problem this could prove. Here’s his list of riders that are currently in appropriations bills that have already passed:
The appropriations bills on offer would cancel all federal funding for Planned Parenthood. They would prevent enforcement of a proposed Labor Department regulation to mandate investment advisers to operate in their clients’ best interest. They would cancel the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules. They would stop environmental regulations on clean water, endangered species, and air-quality standards for ozone, and block an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule on toxic silica dust in the workplace.
They would exempt flavored cigarettes currently on the market from regulation. They would halt the Securities and Exchange Commission from completing rules requiring publicly traded companies to disclose political spending. They would block rules limiting the hours long-haul truckers can spend on the road without rest. And they would change hundreds of other rules, regulations, and funding priorities.
As Dayen explains:
These aren’t primarily funding decisions, but unrelated favors that reward conservative friends (typically businesses seeking to be unshackled from regulations) and punish enemies such as Planned Parenthood and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They would fail as standalone legislation, but can pass when attached to the budget like barnacles to a ship.
And they are exactly the type of policies — repealing environmental and safety regulations, attacking Planned Parenthood — that conservatives deemed important enough to be worth shutting down the government for.
This all sets up a very interesting situation for incoming Speaker Ryan. He has vowed to make the House governable again, and has sought rules changes to insulate himself from blowback from House conservatives if and when he makes governing compromises that anger them. John Boehner’s shepherding through of a big budget deal did take big steps towards clearing the decks for Ryan to take over.
But conservatives may regroup and mount a new round of pressure on Ryan to use these riders to fight for conservative priorities, such as defunding Planned Parenthood, rolling back or weakening Obama’s new efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants, and so forth. To be sure, conservatives will probably expect their leaders to cave on many of these, but it’s still an occasion for more infighting between them and GOP leaders — and more conservative anger and disappointment towards them.
“This will be a huge first test for Ryan,” one senior adviser to a conservative member of Congress tells me. “Conservatives will want their leaders to make a stand on Planned Parenthood, Obama’s carbon plan, etc. But there’s nothing to give conservatives faith the leadership will do that. This will be another rough patch.”
Meanwhile, liberals will likely pressure Democratic leaders not to cave, either — they will demand Senate Democrats stand firm in filibustering any appropriations bills that do include any of these riders. So, while it’s true that the threat of calamity has been dramatically reduced, we could see more games of Congressional chicken as the December 11th deadline for an agreement funding the government over the long term approaches — games that could still create a lot of noisy drama and do a fair amount of damage.