The first 70 miles of President Donald Trump’s long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border would be built under a ramshackle $800 billion spending bill passed Thursday by the House of Representatives.
With all eyes trained on the Senate for dramatic health care deliberations that threatened insurance access for tens of millions of Americans, the House approved the spending package 235–192. Five members of each party defected in a largely party-line vote.
The package is the first major movement in a long and complicated funding dance that Congress must complete in a very short window of time. The bill faces complicated odds in the Senate and covers only four of the 12 separate buckets of appropriations legislation that lawmakers must resolve before current government spending runs out at the end of September.
Most of the bill’s spending goes to the Department of Defense. But House leaders opted to mash up the Pentagon funding work with spending bills for Veterans Affairs, the legislative branch itself, and federal agencies that work on energy and water issues.
The bill would shovel $1.6 billion into building a stretch of Trump’s wall, less than 10 percent of the total projected cost of the idea.
It also cuts millions of dollars from the targeted job-creation work of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). There would be almost 9,000 fewer jobs available in the economically depressed eastern mountain region without the ARC’s investments there in recent years. Coal country residents struggling to find work will have less help if the House-passed bill becomes law. Yet the bill’s proponents touted the cut as a win by contrasting it with Trump’s proposal to eliminate the agency entirely. The Republican legislation cutting ARC funding by $16 million over last year’s levels “protects the [commission] from proposed elimination,” Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) said in a statement.
The cuts to job creation in Appalachia are just a sliver of the roughly $5 billion in total cuts to domestic programs in the bill passed Thursday. The legislation also zeroes out ARPA-E, the future-minded energy research program, and halves funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency work through the Department of Energy.
Republican members also tacked on a number of “riders,” amendments that set or change government policy in very specific ways.
Riders have long been scorned by conservatives because they flatten out debate around policy questions by attaching them to the fundamental work of funding government programs. But Republican leaders frequently used budget riders as poison pills to stall or kill budget packages prior to the Trump presidency.
One rider in Thursday’s bill bars federal dollars from going to the long-awaited Cape Wind renewable energy project in the waters off of Massachusetts. Another prohibits any federal money from being spent to look into how carbon in the atmosphere affects society.
The border wall funding itself is widely considered as a rider, because attaching partial funding for it to major spending bills subverts full congressional consideration of the wall idea as national policy. The wall falls under Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jurisdiction, but funding for it has been attached to a bill that does not fund DHS. The money would also create just 70 miles of barrier, according to Politico, for a price tag of roughly $23 million per mile.
The practical impact of Republican riders on non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs is far larger than it appears in the legislative text, according to the 170-member Clean Budget Coalition, a group founded to oppose riders. After inflation is factored in, the cuts Republicans want would leave domestic spending $22 billion short of what is required to fund existing programs, the group says.
By simultaneously cutting NDD programs and increasing funding for the military dramatically, Thursday’s bill violates the rules of the Budget Control Act (BCA) legislation that has governed spending since late in the Obama administration.
Breaking BCA rules would trigger the return of sequestration, the automatic and harsh across-the-board spending cuts that helped depress economic growth in 2013 and 2014. That means the House bill which ostensibly increases Pentagon spending could end up forcing cuts to it instead, unless Congress strikes a deal to revoke or modify the BCA — a highly unlikely event given that Republicans do not have 60 votes in the Senate.
Congress has just three working weeks left between now and the end of September to enact spending measures to keep the government open. The deadline will prompt a flurry of appropriations votes as GOP leaders hope to strike deals between House and Senate and avoid another “continuing resolution” to keep the lights on without changing much in the way of policy.
The “Make America Secure Appropriations Act,” as House leaders have dubbed Thursday’s bill, is a relatively small opening bid in the broader appropriations process facing lawmakers.
There are 12 separate appropriations bills Congress must pass and unify into an “omnibus” spending package. Even if the Senate agrees to Thursday’s “mini-bus” package of four such appropriations bills, the two bodies must still complete work on billions more dollars in spending laws. Lawmakers have left themselves fewer than 20 working days to complete decisionmaking negotiations that typically take months.