With Shutdown Looming, Single-Subject Spending Bills Edge Ahead of CR

NRB | September 22, 2023 | Advocacy, Advocacy News

With eight days until the fiscal year ends, four workdays to strike a budget deal, and eleven necessary appropriations bills to pass through Congress, a government shutdown is looming large as members spar over spending deal breakers, must-haves, and interim measures.

On Thursday, House Republicans halted consideration of a continuing resolution (CR)—a stopgap measure to keep the government open—as conservatives warned Speaker Kevin McCarthy that the measure did not have enough votes to pass. Within the fractured Republican conference, even the preliminary process of rule votes has not followed predictable norms. In the meantime, Senate leadership will likely send the House a bipartisan CR jam-packed with provisions that Republicans oppose. 

McCarthy is under extreme political strain as he navigates this dilemma. His options include bringing a Senate-approved CR to a vote and relying on Democrat support to pass it, inflaming conservative Republican members who are poised to retaliate. He could optimistically attempt to amend the CR to satisfy the demands of his conference and see if the Senate will play ball. Or he could turn down the Senate-approved CR and let the government shut down—a scenario that will not play out favorably for his party in the eyes of the public.

But McCarthy’s antagonist-in-chief, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) believes a victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat. Assuming that a shutdown is inevitable, Gaetz is urging the Speaker to bring single-subject spending bills to the floor and use floor debates on these bills as an opening move in negotiations with the Senate, rather than sending a CR that meets with approval from conservative Republicans over to the Senate, only to fail. 

In an appearance on Timcast IRL Thursday night, Gaetz laid out his strategy and answered the question on many viewers’ minds: what’s a continuing resolution? 

“A continuing resolution is, however things are being funded right now, just fund them the same way next year with increases for inflation, cost of living. So just keep doing everything the way it’s always been done,” Gaetz said. “I do not believe that’s a serious and responsible way to govern.”

Gaetz and likeminded members of his party have long vowed not to vote up-or-down for collective government funding bills. Instead, each area should be examined through single-subject review to “isolate the most weaponized programs and excise them from the government budget strategy,” Gaetz said. 

Gaetz has rallied a coalition of moderates and conservatives around the idea that since the CR does not have the votes to pass, four essential single-subject spending bills should be expedited immediately: Defense, Homeland Security, State-Foreign Operations, and the Agriculture-FDA bill. Shortly after Gaetz approached McCarthy with his recommendation, the Rules Committee announced it would be taking up those four bills on Friday afternoon.

These bills won’t pass in time to avert a shutdown—but they’ll put acceptable provisions on the record and posture House Republicans to negotiate with the Senate and the White House, making this a much more productive approach than simply refusing to pass the CR, in Gaetz’s view.

“If we’re going to go into a shutdown, let’s at least lay out what our priorities are,” Gaetz said. “It’s a divided government, so on those single-subject bills, we’re going to have to negotiate with Democrats.” 

Although unlikely, swing Republicans could potentially knife Gaetz’s plan by joining Democrats in signing a discharge petition to pass the CR without the support of the Republican conference overall. 

As the Republican-controlled House returns to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to spend the next week hammering out spending bills that will inevitably be rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate, it looks like Gaetz’ idea will be put to the test. 

Understanding the process 

In order to maintain federal government operations and personnel, there must be funding for agencies and programs. Broadly speaking, government funding is provided through spending in appropriations bills, as federal agencies are unable to spend money without an appropriation from Congress under the Antideficiency Act. These appropriations address discretionary spending, such as defense and education, but not mandatory spending, like Social Security. 

The process begins when the President sends his Administration’s budget proposal to Congress, where the respective budget committees report a budget resolution that is reconciled in a budget conference if it is passed. This resolution sets the amount of money that each of the twelve appropriations committees may spend. If a resolution is not reached, each chamber can enact a resolution setting allocation for itself. After receiving allocations, the Appropriations committees split the appropriations between the following twelve committees who determine how those appropriations are dispersed.

  • Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration
  • Commerce, Justice, Science
  • Defense
  • Energy and Water Development
  • Financial Services and General Government
  • Homeland Security
  • Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies
  • Labor, Health and Human Services, Education
  • Legislative Branch
  • Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies
  • State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs
  • Transportation, Housing and Urban Development

A government shutdown happens when Congress fails to pass either appropriations bills for these respective subcommittees or a continuing resolution as a stopgap. If some of the twelve bills are passed, but not all of them, only the agencies with appropriations can function and the rest shut down in what is known as a partial shutdown. Read more on the appropriations process here

In a narrow majority, McCarthy can only afford four Republican “no” votes on a spending bill, and longstanding intra-party conflicts have made it impossible to pass the bill without Democrat support. The Biden administration has requested an additional $44 billion in support of Ukraine, disaster relief, and border security and migrant relief. While the Senate has less qualm with sending additional aid to Ukraine—with some exceptions—several House Republicans stand in absolute opposition. More than two dozen Hill Republicans, including six senators, sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget on Thursday to register their opposition, writing, “The vast majority of Congress remains unaware of how much the United States has spent to date in total on this conflict, information which is necessary for Congress to prudently exercise its appropriations power.” Conservative Republican members have also indicated they are unwilling to approve funding that would empower the Justice Department to continue with its politicized indictment of former President Donald J. Trump. 

With narrow majorities, vulnerable leadership, and a government shutdown all-but-inevitable, expect to see this rocky budget battle dominating the Hill—and illuminating the finer points of intra-party warfare—in the days to come.

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