Missed Budget Deadline Seen Setting Up Rule Fight

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By Jonathan Nicholson

May 9 — House Republicans acknowledge they'll miss their newest target date of May 15 to adopt a budget, meaning the party's fiscal fight could shift to the procedural rule to get the first appropriations bill to the House floor.

Under the Congressional Budget Act (Pub. L. No. 93-344), the House is allowed to take up appropriations bills for the upcoming fiscal year after May 15 if no budget has been adopted. House Republican leaders had hoped to get the annual funding bill process off to a fast start by accelerating the budget process this year, but ran into opposition from conservative and libertarian members opposed to the $1.070 trillion limit for discretionary funding in 2017 (see related story in this issue).

With the budget resolution (H. Con. Res. 125) absent from scheduled floor consideration this week, the May 15 deadline will come and go, though a senior Republican aide said the failure to meet the deadline did not preclude one from being adopted later in the year. House Republicans could attempt to “deem” a budget adopted, a path taken every year since the 1974 Budget Act that an actual budget has not been adopted. But that would likely require the support of House Democrats, a politically risky move for Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

Rule Still Needed

Regardless of whether a budget is adopted or deemed adopted, House Republican aides say appropriations bills will still need a rule to get to the House floor. That could prove difficult for Republican leaders, as they would face opposition from the more fiscally conservative members of their conference—as well as from Democrats. Rule votes are usually partisan affairs, with crossover voting considered unlikely.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow with the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said there had not been an appropriations bill on the House floor without a rule in 15 or 20 years. He said a former Appropriations Committee subcommittee chairman, Iowa Democrat Neal Smith, had tried to move a Commerce-Justice funding bill without a rule once, but ran into trouble. “Republicans got up and struck every item in the bill that wasn't authorized,” he said, referring to programs whose statutory authorizing language had lapsed and not been renewed.

To keep that from happening again, as well as to keep amendment debate to a reasonable time, a rule would be needed. But passing a rule for each funding bill on a bill-by-bill basis without either a budget or a deeming resolution would the worst option, Lilly said. He said he worried Ryan might offer anti-spending members of the House Freedom Caucus concessions in the rule in exchange for support for it and the attached funding bill's passage.

Lilly said offering a concession to a party group in an appropriations rule would be unusual. “This really is very out of line in terms of how we've managed legislation, historically,” said Lilly, who worked 31 years on Capitol Hill, including as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.

‘To Be Scolds.'

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told Bloomberg BNA April 28 the group had discussed the possibility of post-May 15 bill-by-bill rules votes. “I think there's still concerns, but we're talking about that,” he said. “But we haven't had as many in-depth conversations about that issue as we've had about the overall budget itself, what we think would be good policy that we could do that saves money that can actually pass.”

Bypassing both a budget and deeming resolution raises another question: What is the role of the Budget Committee? Asked April 27 if he was worried about setting a precedent that would undermine the Budget Committee—which he once headed—Ryan said, “We're still having conversations with our members. We are having lots of group conversations to figure out how to move forward. Obviously, we want to pass a budget.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House and a member of the Appropriations Committee for 23 years, said the Budget Committee's power resides in being persuasive and in setting a topline appropriations figure.

“To be scolds and to have some discipline on the 302(a) obligation. That's really what they do,” he said April 27.

Overhaul Badly Needed

Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) said this year showed the need to overhaul the entire budget system.

“I think it's clear the process is broken. That's why we're going to undertake a rewrite of the '74 Budget Act, because it isn't working,” he said April 28. “And we'll begin that as soon as we get back from the break.”

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has expressed even more determination to get reform. At a committee hearing April 27 on revamping the budget process, Enzi said he would voluntarily scrap his own committee if he thought it would improve the budget process.

“I feel serious enough about this that I volunteered to eliminate the Budget Committee if it's irrelevant,” he said. “We don't need more steps in our process. We need more effective steps in our process.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman in Washington at hrothman@bna.com.