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Three things we learned from the omnibus spending bill

- March 23, 2018

Nearly six months behind schedule, Congress voted last night to pass a mammoth “omnibus” spending bill to keep the federal lights on for the rest of the fiscal year. Lawmakers have little leeway, since government funding runs out midnight Friday. Congress and President Trump were not eager to kick the can to buy more time.

Release of the 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion omnibus late Wednesday night was anticlimactic. Last month, congressional leaders shook hands on the broad outlines of a two-year spending deal. That bipartisan agreement promised an eye-popping $500 billion in new federal spending for defense and domestic programs over two years.

What we learned this week are the details of which programs will be funded and by how much. For example, Republicans and Trump secured a marked increase in funding for the military, while Democrats locked down more spending for a variety of social programs, including Planned Parenthood, opioid addiction treatment and election security.

But the deeper lesson of the omnibus measure: It’s really, really hard to make deals in a politically polarized era. The parties play reasonably well side by side when they’re giving out money. But reaching agreement on issues that splinter Republicans and divide the parties proves much harder.

Sometimes the game looks like hide-and-seek

House party leaders gave rank and file just hours to review the mammoth spending agreement. Republican leaders — expecting that they would lose the votes of the far-right Freedom Caucus — did that on purpose. As political scientist James Curry argues, “legislating in the dark” gives advantages to party leaders: The less time available to examine and publicize what’s in a bill, the greater the chances are it passes.

That’s why GOP leaders have said relatively little about what’s in the bill. They’ve talked instead about achieving such Republican priorities as increasing spending on defense and border security (albeit without money to build “the Wall”).

One of the reasons GOP leaders were keen to rush the bill to a vote is that they didn’t want their partisan base to notice that it both funds innumerable Democratic priorities and blocks the Trump administration from doing such things as expanding detention of immigrants, defunding sanctuary cities, and ending federal funding for the arts, to name a few. The Trump White House and many conservatives wanted deep cuts to domestic programs. Party leaders ignored that. The more quickly the two chambers vote, the less time potential opponents have to unearth details that could outrage the GOP base, who might pressure their representatives to vote against the deal.

How did Democrats fare so well with Republicans in control? Because there are only 51 GOP senators, Democrats could credibly threaten to filibuster the bill if it failed to meet Democratic demands. And given conservatives’ past record of voting against major spending bills, GOP leaders know they will need votes from moderates and Democrats in both chambers to help carry the bill across the finish line.

Sometimes it looks like “Calvinball”

Unified party control hasn’t improved the budget process. Budgeting sometimes resembles Calvinball: Congress seems to make up the rules as it goes along, ignoring ones that bind their hands. Had lawmakers followed the law, Congress and the president would have enacted 12 separate spending bills before the start of the government’s fiscal year that began in October. But as Mark Spindel and I explored in the wake of the short-lived government shutdown in January, Congress’s track record at doing any of this is lousy. As you can see in the figure below, it’s been two decades since Congress last funded the government on time.

Why hasn’t unified GOP control made the trains run on time? Partisan polarization — coupled with internal Republican fissures — undermines Congress’s power of the purse, even in good economic times.

More parallel play than bipartisan dealmaking

But while legislative leaders reached deals on many below-the-radar items, they didn’t have any such luck with those that are being closely watched. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program remains in limbo; Democrats appear to have rejected Trump’s proposal to exchange short-lived protection for the Dreamers for long-term funding for the Wall. Meanwhile, Republican leaders worried they’d fracture their party if they supported DACA.

Republicans are also divided over tighter gun regulations — and so lawmakers delivered only a bare-bones response to the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, just days before thousands of new and future voters march on Washington. Lawmakers shored up the national firearms background check registry and improved school safety, while opting against new limits on gun purchases.

And after months of bipartisan negotiations to renew federal Obamacare insurance subsidies ended by the Trump administration, the deal tanked when Republicans and Democrats disagreed about new limits on government support for abortion services.

So what? So there aren’t any other big must-pass deadlines coming up that would push Congress to bargain again. In the fall, there could be some stopgap spending bills, but it’s hard to imagine that any tough decisions will get made just before the November elections. By design or plan, party leaders defaulted into stalemate. Republicans were unsure what the president would support and unwilling to fracture their party, putting major policy deals out of reach. This means these big issues will still be alive for those voting in the midterm elections.