December 11, 2015 | Commentary on Budget and Spending, Budget Process

Pass a Six-Week Funding Extension

Call me Swami. As I predicted two and a half months ago, December has indeed turned out to be the cruelest month for responsible funding decisions.

Congress is still negotiating a $1.1 trillion spending deal to fund the government for at least another year. Absent yet another extension of 2015 spending levels, they must pass the new deal by December 16 — next Wednesday — to keep the wheels of government turning.

Among the many facets of the negotiations is a drawn-out debate over which policy riders to include. For those (mercifully) uninitiated in Washington-speak, policy riders are statutory language that place policy parameters around the money Congress intends to spend.

Riders have long been a part of the congressional spending process — since 1879, in fact. They give Congress a way to control how the other branches of government may spend the money lawmakers have authorized them to spend. A well-known rider, for example, is the Hyde Amendment, which has forbidden agencies to spend federal funds on elective abortions since 1976.

Republicans have identified several riders as important during this go-round. (At the Heritage Foundation, we've created our own list of those we think are significant.) For many, the top priorities include lowering spending, defunding Planned Parenthood, blocking economically harmful EPA regulations, and restricting the implementation of executive amnesty.

While Congress may adopt these riders, the president is sure to oppose them. So the question of whether they will ever be implemented boils down to a simple matter of leverage and who has it.

A spending bill gives negotiators much more leverage than a normal legislative measure for one obvious reason: If the bill doesn't pass, the government runs out of money. It's one of those bills that pundits call "must-pass." Thus, it makes a handy vehicle for those policies that might not pass on their own or as part of other bills.

However, there is another facet involved in this dance between leverage and policy riders, and that is timing. On Thursday, the House and Senate passed a five-day funding extension to give themselves more time to negotiate. However, this also places the new funding deadline a mere handful of days before Christmas.

This is an old tactic used regularly by Republican and Democratic leaders over the years: Toss an important deadline up against a holiday, and members will agree to just about anything if it means they can get out of town and home to their families (and to their holiday parties).

This is bad news for conservative priorities, which are generally the most difficult to implement anyway given the level commitment required to get them across the finish line. It becomes nearly impossible for members to keep fighting for principled policies when they get tired, distracted by the holidays, and chastised by angry colleagues for keeping them in town and away from loved ones.

Further complicating matters is the fact that these mega-deals (last year at this time, the deal under discussion was 1,582 pages) are generally sprung on lawmakers with little time for debate, input, or amendments. As the Associated Press pointed out recently, these end-of-the-year negotiations are "conducted entirely in secret." Speaker Ryan has said that his conference will get a whole "three days" to review the measure, but has not said whether there will be an open process for debate or amendments.

As for the Senate, well, the Upper Chamber has uttered nary a peep regarding how it will process whatever comes over from the House. If past is precedent, the process will be highly regulated, the spending astronomical, and the process expedited.

To avoid this situation, conservatives should jettison this new deadline and instead seek a six-week (or longer) funding extension to keep the government open until late January. That would give both parties time to legislate without undue duress. A five-day extension provides no benefit that a six-week extension doesn't offer as well. In fact, the five-day extension is worse, as it creates a fake funding crisis and practically ensures that conservative priorities will be overridden.

This spending deal is an important test of the Republican majority and for the new speaker. Nearly three years into their control of both chambers, the Republicans have notched few conservative policy victories. This spending deal, however, gives them the leverage and opportunity to exercise the full measure of their majority — to fight for the valuable policies that they otherwise could not pass over the objections of filibuster-threatening Senate Democrats or a presidential veto.

To waste this opportunity — to sacrifice the leverage this bill provides on the altar of the immediate need to "wrap up" for the year — would be a blow to conservatives and a failure of leadership on behalf of a majority that is trying to find its way out of the dark.

-A ten-year veteran of congressional policy battles, Rachel Bovard is the Heritage Foundation's director of policy services.

About the Author

Rachel Bovard Director of Policy Services
Policy Services and Outreach

This piece first appeared in Real Clear Policy