Official portrait of United States House Speaker (R-Ohio). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In October of 2015, John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives resigned from the House, effective the end of November. His problem was getting what he considered necessary legislation through the House of Representatives without a government shutdown. His immediate problem was extending the debt limit, which was then over 18 trillion dollars. Not extending it would shut down the Federal Government as it would stop all government expenditures beyond a certain point that had almost been reached.
The extreme right of the Republican Party wanted to defund Planned Parenthood in return for extending the Debt Limit. President Barack Obama had stated that if this measure were tied to the bill he would veto it. By resigning, effective a month later, Boehner removed the House of Representatives from formulating the necessary bill. The Republican majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, proposed a short term bill extending the Debt Limit until early December which the Senate and later the House passed. The President commented that he would not again sign a short term bill. The final version of the bill was passed early in December raising the Debt Limit for a period of two years.
The next major initial problem of the House of Representatives was finding a new Speaker. Kevin McCarthy, the House Whip, was in line for a short period of time but he didn’t have the votes. Eventually Paul Ryan, after initially refusing, ended up being the individual who could muster enough votes to be made the new Speaker. He accepted after setting special conditions.
The next important bill was one to fund the Federal Government. It had to be passed by December 11, 2015 if the government were not to be shut down for not legally having funds to keep operating.
Generally, every year Congress has to pass a Bill in order to fund the U.S. Government for the oncoming year or it cannot legally pay its bills. This Bill has to originate in the House of Representatives which, according to the Constitution, initially begins all money bills. All that is needed is a one sentence law stating that the Federal Government shall be funded for one or more years. Since 2011, when the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives, they have used that Bill as leverage or blackmail to obtain other things that they had wanted by adding endless amendments to the Bill, many at the very last moment.
For example on Thursday, 12/11/14, the House of Representatives passed, what was essentially but not really a 1,603 page bipartisan 1.1 trillion dollar spending bill that will allowed the Federal Government to continue to function until September 30, 2015, the end of the fiscal year. The bill adhered to strict caps negotiated earlier between the White House and the deficit-conscious Republicans. It is also salted through with GOP proposals which were actually Christmas giveaways to individuals and companies and have nothing to do with the spending budget. The bill should have been passed months earlier but it was convenient for the GOP to keep it hanging as a potential form of blackmail against President Barack Obama until the last possible moment when it had to be passed or its absence would cause a government shutdown.
When Ronald Reagan was Governor of California he had a line-item veto over all bills passed by the State Legislature. He could veto any section or group of sections that he thought was or were inappropriate and sign the document for the rest of the bill to become law. But as President of the United States he could either sign a bill, veto it, or do nothing for ten days and allow it to become law. Reagan was not too happy with this limitation but he had to accept it. It would require an amendment to the Constitution to change this practice.
Not only does every bill have to be passed by both the House and Senate but both versions have to be identical. If a word or punctuation is different, then the two versions are not the same. Actually what happens is that the bill goes to a Committee of Congressmen dealing with that particular subject, they discuss the bill, usually modify it, and then send it to the legislative house to which they belong with their recommendations. If it is passed then that version goes to the other legislative body, where it follows the same procedure. In practically all cases the two versions are at least slightly different. At that point the bill goes to a Conference Committee made up of members of the two Houses, where a final version is then hammered out. This goes back to both Houses of Congress and it then has to be voted upon and repassed by the two Houses. If the bill passes it then goes to the President. After he signs it the bill becomes law. This process generally takes at least a number of days.
The 1.1 Trillion Dollar Spending Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday, December 11, 2014. The Congress was slated to end its session on Friday, December 12th. This meant that the bill had to be accepted exactly as it was if the government was not to shut down the following week when it ran out of money. In fact a short a short extension was also passed in case a few more days were needed to pass the bill.
Keep in mind that according to the Constitution only the House of Representatives can initiate a money bill since initially they were the only group directly elected by the People, the Senate was originally elected by the State Legislatures. The Founders felt that taxes should be authorized by the direct Representatives of the People so that the People are, in a sense, taxing themselves.
Also note that there are no rules about what a bill is supposed to contain. It can deal with one subject or any number of subjects. This finance bill dealt with innumerable subjects, most of which had nothing to do with financing the government.
Because of the catastrophe caused by a government shutdown President Obama urged the Democratic controlled Senate to pass the bill even though it had numerous amendments that were harmful to individuals or groups within the country.
One of these amendments cancelled parts of the Dodd- Frank Act that had been passed in 2010 as a reform measure after the 2008 Bank-caused Real Estate Collapse, to avoid such occurrences in the future and to keep banks from exploiting their depositors and the taxpayers. Presumably the lobbyists for Citibank wrote the measure and it was secretly inserted the night before the bill came up for a vote in the House of Representatives. The insertion rolls back regulations that limit banks from using federal deposit insurance to cover high-risk financial investments. There had been no notice given or debate on this Amendment. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House strongly opposed this insertion as did Senator Elizabeth Warren who called upon the Democratic majority in the Senate to oppose the entire bill if this Amendment was left in.
Another interesting Amendment was trading land with an Indian tribe. A sacred mountain containing a burial ground was to be traded for another piece of land. The sacred mountain was wanted by a company for a copper mine.
Another last minute Amendment dealt with campaign finance, it was extended for individuals. It went from contributions of $32,400 to $324,000. Republicans got a 60 million dollar cut at the EPA (Environment Protection Agency) reducing their workforce to the level they had been at in 1989.
Not all Republicans in the House supported the bill. Many of the Tea Party members wanted to defund President Obama’s immigration executive order. This issue was left out of the House bill.
In both the House and Senate the bill required the votes of both Democrats and Republicans to pass. In the House 162 Republicans and 57 Democrats voted for the bill. 139 Democrats and 67 Republicans were against the spending bill. In the Senate there were 31 Democrats, 24 Republicans, and 1 Independent who voted for the bill and 21 Democrats, 18 Republicans, and 1 Independent who were against it. In both Houses of Congress it required the votes of both major political parties in order to pass.
Interestingly the far right and the far left both opposed this bill, both for different reasons. On the far right, Ted Cruz wanted a section added that would limit or eradicate President Obama’s executive order dealing with illegal immigrants whose children had been born in the United States. And on the far left, the Congressmen wanted to remove many of the giveaways that had nothing to do with the spending bill.
Cruz, in a procedural vote extended the Senatorial Session into the weekend. He did not get his Amendment to the bill passed. Harry Reed, the majority leader in the Senate, used the additional time to get a large number of Obama appointees approved beginning with the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who had been opposed by the NRA because he had suggested earlier that guns were a disease since they killed a large number of people. By the end of the session, Tuesday, December 15th, the Senate had approved a total of 69 controversial presidential appointments.
The Senate passed the Spending Bill on Saturday and President Obama quietly signed it on Tuesday. Congress adjourned around midnight of Tuesday, December 16th and the new Congress, which would have Republican majorities in both Houses, met in January of the next year, after the holidays.
It is interesting to note that all that is required for the government to keep functioning is a one sentence bill that states that the Federal Government shall be properly funded for the fiscal year. The 1,603 page bill detailing all the expenditures over the fiscal year was ridiculous. In this bill every item that was to be funded had to be mentioned in detail. For example: Vice President, Joe Biden’s and other top officials in the government’s salaries were frozen. There was no automatic raise for them that was put into law several years earlier but the members of Congress got their cost of living raise, raising their pay to over $140,000 each.
What happened originally was that several years earlier Congress had voted itself a raise. The press got hold of the news and published it. People were indignant over Congress giving itself an increase in salary when everyone else was hurting financially. There was a protest and the increase was rescinded. Thereafter Congress quietly passed a law making pay increases for Congress and government officials automatic. From then on there was no protest or even public knowledge that this was occurring. In 2014 Congress has voted through its 1,603 page bill not to freeze its own salary but to do so to the Vice President and other high government officials in the Administration. How petty could they get?
In December of 2015 the Federal Government funding situation was far different from what it had been a year earlier. For one thing there was a major Presidential Election coming up in a little less than a year. A government shutdown at this point could have dire consequences for the Republicans in the election if they were blamed for it. Also the people had had enough of the shenanigans that the Republican House of Representatives had pulled since 2011 when they took control of the House of Representatives. The President and the Democrats in both Houses of Congress were not about to go along with what the Republicans had pulled the preceding year. And they would need Congressional Democratic votes to pass any spending bill in both Houses of Congress.
The 2015 omnibus bill, 2,200 pages long, incorporated legislation from twelve subcommittees and was the work of nearly a year. There had been months of negotiations between the two major parties. The bill passed in the House with 316 positive votes to 113 negative ones. 150 Republicans supported the measure and 95 opposed it. 50 members did not vote. Among the Democrats, 166 voted for the legislation, 18 voted against it.
On both extremes there were Congressmen who thought the bill did not go far enough or that it went too far in the wrong direction. Many conservatives felt it overspent, didn’t go far enough blocking abortions and Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S. Liberals felt that the bill did nothing to address the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, did not positively enough effect environmental concerns, and that it lifted a 40 year ban on exporting domestic oil export.
The bill funds the United States Government through September of 2016, nine months. The probability is that another bill will be easily passed at that time to fund the government at least until the end of 2016. The country will be too close to the 2016 Presidential Election for any games to be tried at that time.
But if a Democrat wins the 2016 Presidential Election and the Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives, the December 2016 Government Financing Bill should prove very interesting. Who the next President will be will not be known until the November 2016 Presidential Election is over.
This omnibus bill will be noted for what it left out, rather than for what it included. There is no mention of Planned Parenthood or of the Syrian refugee crisis; nor of numerous other things that were important to both political parties. Speaker Ryan promised the Democrats that the House would deal with the Puerto Rico Debt Crisis in March; that brought a number of Democrats into line to support the bill. Ryan also spread-out the decision making process so that many members of Congress felt that they owned parts of the bill.
Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, was asked why the Democrats hadn’t pushed harder. Her answer was, “I don’t think they would have passed it.” The implications are that both the Democrats and the Republicans had each gone as far as they could in working out this compromise piece of legislation. As a result of the negotiations neither side could claim victory or defeat. Both had squeezed the other side as hard as they could. President Obama praised the Republicans for doing what Congress has done so well in the past, compromising to the point of hammering out a bill both sides could live with.
The Democrats considered the permanent reauthorization of the 9/11 Health legislation a major win. As a result of the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City a large number of the rescuers had breathed in toxic dust and, those who had not since died from resulting cancer and other maladies, still had expensive medical needs. Reauthorizing this medical coverage would help a large number of people. Lifting the 40 year ban on oil drilled in the U.S. being sold outside it continental borders was called by Ryan a big win. Republicans also were able to block proposed bans on weapon purchases by people on federal terrorist lists and also federally funded research on gun violence.
Perhaps the most important thing that the bill did was to do away with the automatic Sequester cuts for 2015. These cuts, which would have automatically gone into effect early in 2016, would have seriously hurt government efficiency for both defense and non-defense programs, across the board. The military budget was actually increased above what it had been the prior year. And this was also true for a number of other programs. The White House was touting tax breaks for the wind and solar programs. In all there were $680 billion in tax cuts for both businesses and individuals. But sequestration is still there and will automatically come into being at the end of 2016 unless new legislation is passed then to stop or end it.
Does this legislation denote a new feeling of friendliness between the two political parties? I think not. What it demonstrates is a wide division between both Democrats and Republicans. It took nearly a year to come up with this 2,200 page detailed bill and make it acceptable to both political parties. Neither party was strong enough to push any of this legislation through on its own; it required a joint effort to pass it.
If anything it denotes the great distance between our political parties. Speaker Ryan has recently commented that the House will soon take up defunding Obamacare. That will mean that this bill will have been passed over 50 times without once being taken up in the Senate. Considering that the House will officially only meet for 110 days in 2016 that is spending a lot of time upon a bill that will go nowhere. Ryan stated that, outside of the increasing number of people signing up for the service, the bill is a failure. Interestingly outside of his statement he offered no evidence other than his word.
The December 11th deadline for this bill to pass was extended one week to Friday, December 18. Directly after the bill was passed in the House of Representatives it was sent to the Senate where it was passed. From there it was sent to the President, who signed it with positive remarks for the compromise legislation. Obviously the Government shutdown was avoided.
It should be noted that on Wednesday, December 6th the House of Representatives, under Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership, passed a bill for the 62d time defunding Obamacare and stripping Planned Parenthood of Federal Funding. The bill was passed in the Senate last year through a special provision that avoided a filibuster in the Senate and was sent to the President for the first time. On Friday, December 8, two days later, it was vetoed by the President, who stated that the Affordable Health Care Act had helped millions of Americans who couldn’t otherwise afford Health Care. Republicans do not have the votes to override the veto. Still they claimed victory, claiming that they had passed a repeal bill and that they are keeping a promise to voters in an election year. They stated that they are capable of repealing the law if a Republican wins in the November election. I wonder if that’s true if Donald Trump were to become the next president.
Of course they would still have to keep control of both Houses of Congress. 2016 promises to be a colorful year in Congress. We may go beyond gridlock. This should be particularly true with the House working a three day week and taking a four day weekend and all holidays.
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)