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October 21, 2014

Posts in "Budget Wars"

September 30, 2014

Shutdown as Campaign Issue? That Was So Last Year

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Democrats campaigned against the government shutdown. What a difference a year makes. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Even before the government started shutting down, one year ago Tuesday night, it seemed a sure bet that throughout the coming campaign congressional Republicans would be made to rue the political consequences of their showdown strategy.

Ample evidence to support that theory cropped up all over the country by the middle of October, a barrage of attack ads that started airing right after the GOP sued for peace and normal federal operations resumed.

But, five weeks before Election Day, that budget standoff has all but vanished as a polarizing issue. Democrats — once giddy at the prospect of riding a wave of voter antagonism toward the Republicans for pushing their confrontational approach so far — are now counting on an almost entirely different set of issues and arguments to drive their base to the polls and hold off gains by the other side. Full story

July 23, 2014

Spending Impasse Solidifies With Midterm Results Holding Next Move

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Reid once had grand plans. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

This week notwithstanding, this summer on the Hill has been less sticky than usual. But it’s shaping up to be as somnolent as ever.

The days leading up to the August recess are by custom dedicated to some of the year’s defining and politically consequential matters: A deal holding down student loan interest rates last year, showdown votes on taxes and drought relief in 2012, the last minute averting of government default in 2011, and confirmations of Supreme Court justices the two previous summers.

This time, no climatic or dramatic get-out-of-town roll call is in the offing. There won’t be a quick fix for the child migrant crisis, and there’s only an outside chance for a deal to patch up the veterans’ medical care system. Congress will agree to keep highway construction funds flowing for just nine months, but that’s just a classic can-kicking maneuver.

The election year void was supposed to be filled with clamorous debates on appropriations bills, which both House and Senate leaders promised would produce some unusually timely progress for this year’s budget process. That’s not happening, and it’s not going to happen. Full story

July 10, 2014

Politics, Not Policy, Shape Bridge Over Highway Cliff

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Lawmakers are still struggling with a long-term solution to fund transportation construction. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Thursday will see this year’s most consequential vote in the once-mighty House Ways and Means Committee — to propose one of the more assertive legislative punts in recent memory.

The panel will get behind a plan for patching the gaping chasm in the Highway Trust Fund for the next 10 months, after which the fundamental fiscal flaw in the nation’s main public works program will be exposed once again. House Republicans, not worried about losing control of the chamber this fall, have concluded that’s when they stand their best chance of driving a long-term solution.

The Senate is looking at a totally different approach, one that wraps the funding problem in caution tape for only five months. The Democrats there are keenly aware they may have to turn over the keys to the GOP come January, so they view the lame-duck session as potentially their last best chance to come up with a lasting fix to a problem that’s been festering for years.

Put another way, this month’s big fight over how to sidestep the edge of the transportation funding cliff is not going to be about remaking an outdated policy. Not surprising this close to an election, political positioning is at the heart of the dispute — which only will determine which party can claim the upper hand when the real debate begins. Full story

June 25, 2014

What Cochran’s Win Means for Hill Spending

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Cochran talks in May with a constituent in Olive Branch, Miss. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A congressional dead man walking just days ago, Thad Cochran has instead become one of the most influential players in the coming Congress. The senator who looked to become the tea party movement’s biggest scalp of 2014 is now in position to be the small government conservatives’ worst nightmare of 2015.

Cochran’s upset runoff victory has made him a totally safe bet for a seventh term, and also increased by a small notch the prospect that he and his fellow Republicans could win control of the Senate this fall. If that happens, Cochran has not only the seniority but also the vanquished victor’s clout necessary to claim the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee — where he would surely restore some of the spend-along-to-get-along spirit of bipartisan collegiality that drives insurgents on the right absolutely nuts.

Because the current limits on discretionary spending will be replaced by tightening sequester caps on domestic and military outlays for the remainder of the decade, Cochran would be legally powerless to break the bank during the four years he might be chairman. (He’d have to give up the gavel at the end of 2018, when he will turn 81, because the GOP has term limits and he ran Appropriations for two years in the past decade.)

What’s more, the ideological dynamics of the Senate Republican Conference would make it highly unwise and probably impossible for Cochran to achieve a restoration of the old-time appropriations culture, in which both sides are willing to give in on plenty so they might gain a little — and still get home on time. For starters, if there’s switch in party control, the GOP membership on Appropriations would expand next year. That means the dominant voices would belong to the younger generation of fiscal hard-liners, no longer the senior accommodationists such as Cochran. Full story

June 15, 2014

Latest Budget Skirmishes: From School Lunch to Immigration

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Two young children pass out plates to promote passage of a school nutrition bill in 2010. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Appropriations is supposed to be the exception to the rule that Congress will be minimally productive this year, and the recent flurry of action on the annual money bills has made it appear that way.

Just beneath the surface, though, lies a lengthening list of disagreements over spending priorities and policy shifts. They are not only between Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, but also between Congress and the Obama administration.

Half a dozen major confrontations have surfaced just in the past week — even while progress has appeared steady.

Nine of the dozen appropriations bills have at least started down the legislative assembly line. The House is on course to pass its fifth measure this week, and Eric Cantor says moving as many as possible is his main goal before relinquishing the majority leader post at the end of July. The Senate has set the next two weeks aside for debating a package containing three of the politically easier domestic bills.

Yet no one in the know is holding out hope for answering all the myriad where-the-money-goes questions by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year and also when lawmakers plan to pack up for a month of full-time campaigning. That means a continuing resolution will surely have to keep most (if not all) of the government operating at least to the middle of November, when the lame-duck session begins and Republicans know whether they’ll have more power next year.

The end result, for now, is a real sense of disconnect. One the one hand, there’s a superficial steadiness to the appropriations process, a break from many years of chaos from the start. On the other hand, there are plenty of signs that a long period of the customary messiness lies ahead.

Here are five disputes that have recently blossomed, each of which has the potential to complicate this year’s budget debate until its closing days. Full story

April 27, 2014

As Congress Returns for 9-Week Slog, 5 Areas Are Ripe for Compromise

Congress returns Monday afternoon for its longest run of the year — nine straight weeks when the lights will be on in at least one chamber. And, for so many glimmers of policymaking hope, it’s getting close to now-or-never time.

The House will be gone again in two weeks, the Senate will take off all of Memorial Day week and the House will be dark again the first week in June. But the next bicameral break is not until June 30 through July 4.

But don’t be fooled by the slog from spring into summer that’s now getting started. For the 113th Congress, it’s later than you may think.

After Independence Day, there are just four weeks until the August recess, which lasts five weeks, including the week starting on Labor Day, followed by maybe as few as a dozen days in session before early October. That’s when the House majority leadership has promised members they can go home to campaign full time, and the Senate’s likely to follow suit.

That’s not much time for genuine legislating, especially given that both parties plan to spend much of the time using the Capitol as a sound stage for their political messaging. This week, for example, the Democrats who run the Senate will make a big show of their obviously-going-nowhere legislation to raise the minimum wage by 39 percent in just two years. And the Republicans who run the House will go after headlines with their entirely-for-show vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups.

But there are still dozens of members in both parties working in the shadows toward deals that would refute the conventional wisdom that nothing will get done this election year. Serious talks are under way about how to finance the next generation of road construction, once the highway trust fund is emptied later in the year; how to meaningfully shrink the Postal Service’s overhead, and how to get a majority of House Republicans to “yes” on an immigration overhaul.

Any breakthroughs on those fronts are probably a season away. But here are five areas that remain ripe for important accomplishment in the next two months: Full story

April 1, 2014

Ryan Budget Is High-Risk, Modest-Reward Strategy in an Election Year

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

An ocean of figures fill the final fiscal blueprint Paul D. Ryan will unveil as chairman of the House Budget Committee. But the number that matters most never appears: 16.

That’s the maximum number of Republicans who can turn their back on the budget resolution when it comes before the full House next week without dooming the caucus and its most nationally prominent figure to an embarrassing election year failure.

Full story

March 28, 2014

Congress Will Allow Government Retirement System to Stay in the Cave Age

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Kelly represents the district that houses what The Washington Post labeled the ‘Sinkhole of Bureaucracy’ in Boyers, Pa. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There’s a nickname for news reports so provocative that readers are compelled to give them a literal shout out. They’re called “Hey, Martha!” stories — as in, “Hey, Martha! Come read over my shoulder: You’re not going to believe this!”

Just such a doozy dominated The Washington Post’s front page on March 23. It detailed how the government processes federal worker retirement forms: entirely by hand, almost exclusively on paper and always deep inside an old mine in rural western Pennsylvania.

As if that picture of bureaucratic inefficiency were not jaw-dropping enough, the story explained the sobering consequences: The process takes an average of 61 days. More than 23,000 cases are backlogged on a typical day. And, after spending more than $130 million since the late 1980s on three different modernization efforts that failed, there’s almost no chance the system will hook up to the computer era — let alone the Internet age — in the foreseeable future.

What that means is that more than 100,000 outgoing government employees annually — dozens of veteran congressional staffers and Capitol complex laborers among them — can expect to wait more than two months before their retirement is official and they start seeing their full benefits. (Usually, checks representing partial estimated payments show up sooner, but even those became seriously delayed during last fall’s partial government shutdown.)

In the current tight budget climate, and given that combating federal retiree hardships isn’t a politically important cause for many lawmakers, Congress will not be spending what it takes to automate or digitize the process — or to bring it out of the darkness.

But, just as it won’t seek credit for ending the cave age system, it doesn’t deserve credit for starting it, either.

People familiar with the Hill’s old earmarking culture may assume the paperwork mine came into being under the auspices of a couple of powerful lawmakers. The available circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise.

Full story

March 24, 2014

Doctors Win, Jobless Lose: The GOP Confronts New Perception Problem

The week is still young, so there’s time left for the Republicans to change course. But for now, the party is moving assertively toward generating one of the most tin-eared headlines of this campaign year:

Congress bails out doctors again but still spurns the unemployed.

Through a confluence of circumstances, the two measures likely to get the most attention at the Capitol for the next several days would each cost about $10 billion, and both include budgetary offsets making them deficit-neutral.

But only one is likely to ever get cleared: Legislation giving physicians significant, if not-quite-total relief, lasting until after the election, from the 24 percent cut in their Medicare fees that is set to take effect next month. Full story

March 11, 2014

Conventions or Ailing Kids? Bill Trade-Off Not as Simple as It Looks

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(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When the options are promising more funding for sick children or preserving the funding for booze and balloons at political conventions, the choice should be about as obvious as it ever gets in Congress.

Which might be why the Senate didn’t even need to call the roll Tuesday morning. Instead, a quick voice vote was all it took to clear legislation (for President Barack Obama’s certain signature) that would end taxpayer subsidies for the presidential nominating conventions — and declare the $126 million saved during the next decade should be spent researching pediatric cancer and other childhood disorders.

The bill was hailed by its Republican authors, and plenty of Democrats, as a compassionately conservative, common-sense application of Robin Hood’s principal. That would be taking from those who appear to be rich (the political parties, businesses and civic leaders who have used the federal money to cover much of the costs of recent gatherings) and giving to those who appear to be needy (the National Institutes of Health’s budget has flat-lined in recent years, complicating its ability to tackle new studies).

But it’s a bit more complicated than that — at both ends of the trade-off. Full story

March 2, 2014

5 Reasons This Supposedly Boring Budget Year Could Be Anything But

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The 2013 budget release frenzy. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The budget President Barack Obama sends to Congress on Tuesday will be a month late and hundreds of billions of dollars short.

But no matter, the Capitol’s conventional wisdom holds, that the unenforced legal deadline for his submission was Feb. 3, and that he’ll propose acquiescing in significant deficits for the indefinite future. A truce has been called in the fiscal wars, the thinking goes, and so Obama’s fiscal 2015 document will be little more than the ritualistic starting point for the most desultory budget debate of this decade.

In the big picture, that is the way it looks to play out. But there are several secondary policymaking and political storylines that could make the budget beat interesting in 2014.

The reasons it’s supposed to be a snooze are by now well understood: The rare bipartisan budget deal reached and ratified in December decided the grand total for discretionary spending in the coming year, so there’s minimal reason for an appropriations deadlock. The latest debt limit extension has locked away that particular countdown clock until well after the elections. That means there’s no new fiscal cliff in sight, allowing both Obama and top Republicans to set aside their last, best offers in pursuit of a grand bargain on deficit reduction.

These are five subplots most worth watching. Full story

February 26, 2014

For Camp’s Tax Overhaul Plan, ‘Dead on Arrival’ May Be Beside the Point

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

What is the point of launching a trial balloon that has already been fatally shot full of holes?

That was the rhetorical question of the day Wednesday, when House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp ceremonially unveiled his plan for the biggest tax overhaul in three decades. The Michigan Republican did so hours after his extensively leaked idea — and the entire topic of an IRS rulebook rewrite — had been marked as a 2014 legislative dead letter by both of his party’s top congressional leaders.

There actually were strategic, selfish and political rationales for Camp to go ahead with his lonely news conference. Full story

February 12, 2014

‘Taking One for the Team’ Isn’t a Concept Boehner Can Rely On

People looking for clues about the current strength and future prospects of John A. Boehner’s speakership should come to one conclusion: He can no longer count on Republicans taking one for the team.

There’s evidence in Tuesday’s debt limit vote to support the view that he pulled off a neat sleight of hand to shield his conference from another self-inflicted wound. But there’s at least as much evidence that Boehner’s control over the outcome was much more tenuous than it could have been — or should have been if his aim is to quell the speculation about his future in the House.

Soon after 28 Republicans joined 193 Democrats to pass legislation lifting the debt ceiling for the next year without any conditions, my colleagues Matt Fuller and Emma Dumain reported this fascinating fact: It was the fewest number of votes from a majority for a bill that passed the House since at least 1991.

That would appear to be the final nail in the strategic coffin for the increasingly sidestepped “Hastert Rule,” which dictates that every bill GOP leadership puts to a vote must muster a majority from the majority.

In the few hours before the roll call, but after Boehner announced his tactical surrender in the four-year debt limit war, he made clear he wasn’t out to run up the score for his position. Instead, he said he would revert to the traditional way of handling the politically problematic need to increase Treasury borrowing: The president’s party would be expected to pull most of the weight. Full story

January 24, 2014

At Retreat, House GOP Will Decide Best Way to Sound Retreat on the Debt

Better-than-even odds say the Great Debt Limit Debate of 2014 will be over before it really gets started, maybe by the end of this week.

House Republicans will decamp from the Capitol on Wednesday, hours after sitting on their hands through most of the State of the Union address, and will reconvene 85 miles away at a sleek golf resort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. By the time their annual policy retreat ends two afternoons later, their leaders expect to have an answer to one of the most vexing questions they’re confronting this election year: How hard does the rank and file want to resist the next increase in federal borrowing?

The congressional calendar, combined with the vagaries of the government’s balance sheet, argue strongly against procrastinating. And this time, taking a relatively easy way out of the impending jam looks to be the way the House GOP will go. They are likely to signal that retreat at the end of their retreat.

The leaders have a few fig leaf feints in mind — one involves the Keystone XL pipeline, the other congressional pay — and it’s likely they’ll settle on a plan that allows their team at least one burst of bellicosity and a couple of hostage-taking roll calls.

But the post-shutdown Republicans do not really have the stomach for another sustained confrontation that could rattle the markets. Nor do they have the sort of tactical myopia that will lead them for very long down a course that threatens to squander their current midterm election advantage. They know their only viable option is to extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority, with no policy strings that would raise President Barack Obama’s hackles, until after the midterm elections.

And so it’s possible that the required legislation will be cleared even before Valentine’s Day. That would prevent constituent or Wall Street anxieties from welling up during the Presidents Day congressional recess. Voters can also be counted on to have minimal patience for debt limit countdown clocks competing for coverage with the Winter Olympics, another argument against waiting until the last week of the month. Full story

January 14, 2014

Hill Budget’s Fine Print: Less Than Meets the Skeptic’s Eye

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

That 19th-century aphorism “figures don’t lie, but liars will figure” comes to mind when poring over the mind-numbingly comprehensive midyear appropriations package — especially the 44 pages covering the political minefields and minutiae of spending on the legislative branch.

The nation’s legions of Congress-haters are scouring the fine print and concocting their own spreadsheets. They are expecting to uncover evidence that what’s labeled Division I of the omnibus is an exercise in deceitful and hypocritical self-dealing — and are confident they’ll be able to argue persuasively that those voting “yes” this week will be guilty of feathering their own nest at the expense of infinitely more pressing national priorities.

They are being urged on by dozens of Capitol Hill’s own current stewards. These most conservative Republican senators and House members are all too eager to demean the institution in which they work — especially when doing so serves as rationale for opposing a bill with a tough-to-comprehend bottom line cresting $1.1 trillion.

With a couple of narrow exceptions, the naysayers look to be quite disappointed. Full story

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