9 min read

Ladder to a shutdown?

With a government shutdown looming at the end of the week, here’s where the appropriations process stands.
Ladder to a shutdown?
House Speaker Mike Johnson has released his funding plan. (Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Monday, November 13, 2023. The 2024 elections are 358 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Let’s start this morning with a reader question.

Kathleen H. asks: I have seen some movement on appropriations bills. Could you let us know where they are now?

Before we dive into the latest government funding news, I always like to offer a brief refresher of the overall process and terminology, to make sure everyone can follow what we’re talking about.

Here goes: When we talk about government funding bills in Congress, we’re really only talking about a sliver of the money spent each year by the federal government.

About 63% of federal spending is “mandatory,” which means it runs on autopilot from year to year without Congress having to do anything. This covers programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Then there’s the approximately 7% of federal spending that goes towards interest payments on the national debt.

That leaves 30% of government spending — the portion designated as “discretionary,” which is the pool of money legislators fight over year to year. The procedure by which Congress disperses this chunk of money (which amounted to $1.7 trillion last fiscal year) is known as the “appropriations process.”

The process calls for all discretionary spending to be divvied up among 12 appropriations bills, each covering different categories of spending:

  1. Defense: 46.9% of discretionary spending last year
  2. Military Construction/Veterans Affairs: 19%
  3. Labor/Health and Human Services/Education: 13.3%
  4. Homeland Security: 5.1%
  5. Transportation/Housing and Urban Development: 5.1%
  6. Commerce/Justice/Science: 5%
  7. State/Foreign Operations: 3.5%
  8. Energy/Water Development: 3.2%
  9. Interior/Environment: 2.3%
  10. Financial Services/General Government: 1.6%
  11. Agriculture/Rural Development/FDA: 1.5%
  12. Legislative Branch: 0.4%

In theory, Congress is annually supposed to pass all 12 appropriations bills by October 1, the start of the new fiscal year. But since the beginning of the modern appropriations process, legislators have managed to pass all 12 bills under this timeline exactly four times: 1977 (the first year of the new system), 1989, 1995, and 1997.

If lawmakers need more time to pass the appropriations packages, they can also pass a “continuing resolution,” or a “CR,” that temporarily extends government funding. At all times, federal operations either must be funded by appropriations bills or by a CR to avoid a government shutdown.

That brings us to the present day. Since October 1, the government has been funded by a CR that is set to expire at the end of this week, at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, November 17.

With the new deadline looming, how close are lawmakers to agreeing on the 12 appropriations bills? Not close at all.

So far, the House has passed eight appropriations bills; the Senate has passed three. (Here’s a handy webpage you can bookmark that tracks which bills have passed which chamber.) But, importantly, the two chambers are working on different versions of each bill, which means a grand total of zero appropriations measures are able to pass both chambers and be sent to the president’s desk. (The Senate’s bills are being drafted according to the topline spending level negotiated by President Biden and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in June. The House bills are not.)

So, can lawmakers pass another CR in the next week? We’ll see. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) yesterday unveiled his proposed stopgap bill, which is expected to receive a House vote tomorrow. (You can read the 32-page measure here.)

Johnson’s proposal, which he has referred to as a “laddered CR,” has a very unique structure. Instead of all government funding being extended to a certain date, his measure extends four appropriations bills (Agriculture, Energy/Water Development, Military Construction/VA, and Transportation/HUD) until January 19 and the rest until February 2.

This idea, first put forward by the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, is intended to discourage lawmakers from funding the government through an “omnibus” package, a mega-bill comprising all 12 appropriations measures. The theory here is that if Congress passes each appropriations bill individually, there is more attention paid to the spending in each specific bill, preventing lawmakers from sticking wasteful spending into a thousands-page omnibus package where it may go unnoticed.

And if only four appropriations bills are expiring at the earlier date, perhaps Congress will handle those first and the others later, instead of passing everything all at once.

Democrats have generally panned this idea since it was first proposed, with the White House calling it a “recipe for more Republican chaos and more shutdowns” (theoretically, the measure would create two partial shutdown deadlines) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) dubbing it “the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

But after Johnson’s bill was released, the Democratic reaction has been a bit more muted for two reasons: Johnson’s proposal is a “clean” funding extension (which means no spending cuts are included), and the Defense appropriations bill expires under the second deadline (which means the “laddered” structure isn’t a ploy to only focus on GOP priorities first, and then let the rest of the appropriations bills linger).

In essence, the process may have been designed by Johnson’s right flank but the lack of spending cuts means it gives them little by way of substance. Conversely, Democrats aren’t thrilled with the process, but are open to it because of the substance. “It looks gimmicky to me, but I’m open to what the House is talking about,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said Sunday.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) called the structure “strange,” but said “if it’s something that our leadership thinks they can work with, it’s something that I imagine most Democrats will say they’ll swallow for now.”

Democratic votes may be needed to pass the measure, since Republicans can only afford four defections — and three GOP lawmakers have already pledged to vote against it. “My opposition to the clean CR just announced by the Speaker to the @HouseGOP cannot be overstated,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) wrote on X, referring to the bill as “funding Pelosi level spending & policies for 75 days.”

Of course, you may recall what happened the last time a Republican House speaker relied on Democratic votes to approve a clean CR.

But no matter how a potential CR is structured, assuming one is passed, lawmakers will eventually have to go back to focusing on the actual appropriations measures. The process in both chambers has been beset by obstacles.

In the Senate, each measure was approved by the Appropriations Committee with sweeping bipartisan majorities. But, on the floor, individual senators have been putting up roadblocks to slow passage. For example, all three appropriations bills the Senate has passed so far were tied together in a “minibus” package — which took almost two months to get through the chamber, despite the fact that it eventually passed in an overwhelming 82-15 vote.

The House is much farther ahead in the game — 8/12 passed! — but the Republican majority has been riven by intraparty splits every step of the way. Just last week, the chamber had to cancel planned votes on two appropriations bills over concerns they would be rejected.

Both measures faced opposition from both flanks of the House GOP conference: moderates felt the Transportation/HUD bill “cut too much from Amtrak and public transit,” per Punchbowl News, “while hardliners thought it didn’t cut enough.

Similarly, the Financial Services/General Government bill was punted because moderates “opposed the repeal of a provision that prohibited D.C. companies from discriminating against employees who get an abortion,” while conservatives “didn’t like that the legislation failed to explicitly ban funding for a new FBI headquarters.”

The House has also yet to pass the Commerce/Justice/Science and Labor/HHS/Education bills, which both contain controversial provisions on abortion that could threaten their approval.

At the end of the day, though, none of the bills being passed by either chamber right now are likely to become law, since they don’t have buy-in from the other side of the Capitol. At some point, after a new CR is in place (staving off the immediate crisis), lawmakers will have to get serious about negotiating across the aisle on these measures, not just within their own caucuses.

The Biden-McCarthy deal in June was supposed to get the hardest part of that negotiating out of the way, but now that the House GOP is ignoring the agreed-upon spending levels, the two parties may have to go back to the drawing board. By then, of course, it will likely be time for another stopgap extension. Our government by CR continues.

More news to know.

Tim Scott’s presidential bid is over. (Ryan Johnson)

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) ended his presidential campaign on Sunday. Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, was favored by many top GOP donors but never caught traction in the primary. According to Politico, even some Scott staffers were surprised by the announcement, which was made on Fox News. At least some of Scott’s financial support is now expected to migrate to Nikki Haley, his fellow South Carolinian.

Former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric has grown increasingly extreme. In a Veterans Day message on Saturday, he pledged to “root out” his political opponents and compared them to “vermin,” asserting that “the threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave, than the threat from within.”

Israeli forces have surrounded Al Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza. According to the Hamas-led health ministry, at least 35 babies born prematurely face possible “death at any moment” as the hospital is cut off from power and other resources. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who says his military is targeting Hamas command centers located underneath the hospital, also claimed Sunday that Israel offered “enough fuel to operate the hospital,” but Hamas rejected the overture.

The Defense Department launched a series of airstrikes against Iran-linked facilities in Syria on Sunday in response to recent attacks on U.S. troops. At least six Iranian proxy fighters were killed.

The Israel-Hamas war continues to divide Democrats. According to an AP/NORC poll, 50% of Democrats approve of President Biden’s handling of the conflict, while 46% disapprove. Meanwhile, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) became the latest “Squad” member to draw a primary challenger.

The FBI is investigating New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) over alleged links between the Turkish government and his campaign. Agents seized Adams’ cellphones and an iPad last week as part of the probe.

Five U.S. service members were killed in an aircraft training accident in the eastern Mediterranean Sea on Friday. An investigation is ongoing into the cause.

More headlines:

The day ahead.

President Joe Biden will return to Washington from Delaware this weekend. He’ll host the Vegas Golden Knights to celebrate their 2023 Stanley Cup victory and meet with President Joko Widodo of Indonesia.

Vice President Kamala Harris will attend the Golden Knights event.

First Lady Jill Biden will host an event to honor the Class of 2023 National Student Poets and a pre-Thanksgiving tea with Black female faith leaders from the Southeast.

The Senate will vote on confirmation of Ana de Alba as a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit and hold a procedural vote on a legislative vehicle for a continuing resolution (CR).

The House will vote on nine bills, including the Debbie Smith Act, which would reauthorize funding for law enforcement to analyze untested rape kits. The chamber may also take up a resolution to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) moved to force a vote on the measure last week.

Also today: Rep.-elect Gabe Amo (D-RI) will be sworn into the House after his special election victory last week. Amo will be the first Black member of Congress from Rhode Island.

Donald Trump, Jr. will testify again in the Trump Organization’s $250 million civil fraud trial in New York City, this time as the first witness called by the defense.

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