Politics & Policy

Put Up or Shut Down?

"Do-Nothing Congress" has little time left for appropriations.

The Democratic 110th Congress has passed 80 bills that President Bush has signed into law. These include 35 bills naming or renaming federal facilities (mostly post offices); ten bills extending current laws and levels of spending on such items as Indian housing and a commission on diplomacy, and one bill allowing construction of a 540-foot stretch of road in eastern Missouri. Just before the August recess, Congress also unanimously passed a bill to rebuild the collapsed bridge in Minnesota.

Another 22 non-controversial, bipartisan bills were passed on such topics as expediting passport renewals, transfer of Indian lands in Oregon and Michigan, reorganization of D.C. public schools, establishment of a commission on foreign investment, the governing structure of the Red Cross and the Inter-American Development Bank, property taxes in the Virgin Islands, breast-cancer research, nutrition for the elderly, NATO expansion, and Medicare billing.

In addition to those, Congress made a (unanimous) technical correction to antitrust laws, expanded the boundaries of the Grand Tetons National Park, protected some judicial employees’ financial disclosure forms from the general public, and reallocated funds from the Senate Gift Shop for a day-care program.

President Bush also signed a bill on animal fighting that had already passed in the previous Congress. On the strength of Republican support and against Democratic opposition, the Congress passed an emergency agricultural-spending bill, a bill modernizing the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act (Democrats have already promised to undo this as soon as possible), and a temporary spending bill that capitulated (for now) to the administration on Iraq policy. Congressional Democrats also managed to produce a bill that implements some (not all, as they’d promised) of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, and another that prevents a president from making “permanent temporary” U.S. Attorney appointments.

Throw in the spending bill that’s kept most of the government running through this year, and that certainly isn’t nothing. Yet if not for a modest increase in the federal minimum wage (and even that came with the price of following Bush on Iraq), one might fail to notice so far that Democrats took over in Congress this year. Their main product has been the noise and fury from each of the 300 investigations they have conducted of the executive branch, and from each bill they have debated that was already doomed to die under Senate filibuster or receive the rare presidential veto. And although they let through a weak lobbying reform bill that will probably become law this month, Senate Republicans have been surprisingly effective in keeping a lid on legislation they don’t like.

The greatest omission from the legislation enacted this year comes in the form of the 12 spending bills required to keep the government running after October 1, when the new fiscal year begins. Although these bills have all passed the House, the Senate put them off all year in favor of veto-bait measures on Iraq withdrawal, research that requires the destruction of human embryos, a federal tobacco tax-hike to pay for health insurance for the middle class, and card-check labor union legislation.

The Senate did pass one appropriations bill before leaving for August, funding the Department of Homeland Security. But even that is expected to result in a veto showdown. It spends more than the president requested, and the White House objects to a provision requiring that contractors be paid a union “prevailing wage” under the Davis-Bacon Act, costing more to taxpayers and potentially hindering reconstruction projects in disaster areas.

There remain just 15 legislative days before current laws funding the government expire, and none of the 12 appropriations bills have reached the president’s desk. Today the Senate is scheduled to begin the least-controversial appropriations bill, Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs, which the administration has signaled it will sign-off on in the form that passed the House. But the Senate has other business this month. General David Petraeus’s report on progress in Iraq comes out in two weeks, and there will be a large fight over the next Iraq supplemental and the conditions attached to it. There are also the matters of confirming a new budget director and a new attorney general. The time crunch will likely require that these bills be jammed together into a single, enormous appropriations bill called an “omnibus” (the term is Latin for “grab your wallet,” because such bills tend to be loaded down with extra pork).

Congress often rushes at the end of the fiscal year and passes an omnibus — Republicans did so repeatedly when they controlled the majority. But majority Democrats face an opposition president who has threatened vetoes against nine of the 12 bills the House has passed. They are in a situation Republicans have tried to avoid ever since they played chicken with President Clinton in 1995, resulting in a government shutdown. Republicans received all of the bad press when non-essential federal workers were sent home and passport offices, national monuments, and the Smithsonian museums closed shop.

Democrats are expected to keep the clock running with temporary-spending bills, which could draw out the appropriations process for a few months. This would put them into the 2008 election year, when their chances for passing meaningful policy legislation would diminish significantly.

It is considered less likely, but Democrats may decide that they benefit politically from a government-shutdown showdown. They could try to pass temporary spending bills with conditions unacceptable to President Bush, if they can clear the Senate. But this would be a gamble — either that Bush will back down (and what does he have left to lose?), or that the media will not blame Democrats for a government shutdown the same way they blamed Republicans in 1995 for doing exactly the same thing.

— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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