Citing the budget caps agreed to last year, Congressional Democrats say they’ll ignore President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts for civilian agencies next year. That’s not all they plan to oppose. For more of what’s ahead, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked to Bloomberg Government Congress Reporter Jack Fitzpatrick.
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Tom Temin: Jack, good to have you on.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Thanks for having me.
Tom Temin: All right, So this budget dropped a week ago. What’s the reaction on Capitol Hill now?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Predictably negative, but maybe actually more negative than usual. This proposed pretty big spending cuts. Unsurprisingly there’s some mandatory-side cuts to programs like Medicaid, nutrition assistance, but mostly, or at least disproportionately on discretionary programs. So cutting a lot from agencies like the [Environmental Protection Agency], Department of Commerce, [Department of] Housing and Urban Development. This actually goes against the bipartisan bicameral deal they struck and that was signed into law that set those spending levels for defense and nondefense discretionary spending last year. It counts for fiscal 2020 and 2021. So Democrats talked about this being a betrayal of that agreement, calling for steep spending cuts when he had actually agreed to a slight spending increase. So really, as usual, the budget is going nowhere on Capitol Hill, but there is probably more pushback than usual this time. In fact, the Senate — the Republican-controlled Senate Budget Committee did not invite the acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget in for a hearing on it because they said that it was clearly going to just going to be so contentious that it served no purpose. So that really was, that kind of sums up the reaction on Capitol Hill.
Tom Temin: And the budget document itself is so thick, even Nancy Pelosi can’t tear it in half.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yes, that was the joke from the budget chairman in the House, John Yarmuth, who said, “I saw this and I tried to tear it in half. But I’m not that strong as Nancy Pelosi.” So clearly this has been sort of a rough back and forth the last couple weeks between Congressional Democrats and then the Trump administration.
Tom Temin: Now, this week, both houses are on recess, so that means nothing will really happen, correct?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yes, after a kind of crazy couple weeks on the Hill with the budget being introduced, State of the Union before that and the end of impeachment, finally we all, especially us Capitol Hill reporters are getting a little bit of a chance to breathe.
Tom Temin: Sure, and when they return, what will they take up first? I mean, will the budget be the first thing on the agenda?
Jack Fitzpatrick: That part of the process is getting moving on budget and appropriations issues. As I said, they’re really gonna ignore the president’s budget proposal. But they are trying to get off to a really fast start on appropriations work — the bills that would actually eventually become law. Now it’s possible they may get off to a faster start than usual by skipping some steps. As I mentioned, they have that budget caps agreement that they struck last year for two fiscal years in the House. John Yarmuth, the budget chairman, has said he’s not going to produce a fiscal 2021 budget resolution, which legally they’re technically supposed to do to set those spending levels because they’ve already agreed on them. So there are some complaints from Republicans about skipping part of the process and just jumping straight to appropriations bills because it ignores some of the big picture stuff that they’re supposed to do. You know, usually, House Democrats would be saying sort of what their plans are for tax policy and revenue and projecting the debt and deficit over the next 10 years. We’re not going to get that. But Democrats have talked a bit about setting an ambitious schedule and trying to get all of their all 12 of their appropriations bills to the floor, or at least most of them, and passing them by the end of June. So they actually have already started holding their hearings. And over the course of the next few months, we’re gonna see mark ups, maybe is early as April, and then floor votes into the early summer despite, of course, the fact that it’s difficult to strike these deals in an election year. But they are — they are getting off to a relatively fast start on appropriations work.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Jack Fitzpatrick, Congress reporter for Bloomberg Government. And I guess we should point out that when you mentioned John Yarmuth, he’s brand new, right, as the House budget chairman?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Yes. So when when Democrats took the House majority after the 2018 elections, Yarmuth became budget chairman. With those negotiations on budget caps he’s been in in kind of a difficult position where he sees no real political benefit and not much of a process benefit to doing what is technically the budget chairman’s job, which is to draft a budget resolution and set that spending framework, considering the fact that they already had to negotiate that framework on get it signed into law in order to avoid sequestration. So you kind of had, a doubling up of of the congressional debate over how much we’re gonna spend. And when they accomplished that and raised the the budget caps, it kind of left the position of budget chairman in a position where he doesn’t have a defined role. So largely he’s holding hearings on spending issues. He had the [Office of Management and Budget] director in to talk about the president’s budget. But we’re kind of in a strange area where nobody entirely knows what the purpose is of a budget committee. While we have these budget caps in place and while congressional leaders and the president are negotiating spending levels. So Yarmuth and Mike Enzi, the budget chairman in the Senate, are kind of in a strange position at least for the next year.
Tom Temin: Well, with this accelerated schedule, does that mean that there’s less opportunity for some of the senior federal career people who sometimes traipse to the Hill to talk about and defend what they’re planning to do? Will that happened to a lesser degree this time?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Oh, no, I think that will — that will happen just as much as usual. Again, in the House they have started some of their hearings in appropriations. The sort of less exciting ones, but necessary ones. Member day hearings where like almost anybody who wants to come in can come in and talk. So I think there will be a very robust set of hearings — in fact, that have already started in the House. And I don’t have a date for the Senate, but I know they were looking to start pretty soon. So there will be a very significant debate over all of these appropriations bills. I think the challenge is, one, the debate over skipping the budget resolution and sort of questioning the identity of the budget committee itself. And then, as I alluded to, in an election year, expectations are low for actually getting these signed into law any time in the reasonable near future. A lot of appropriators I’ve talked to said they wouldn’t be surprised if they have to rely on a stopgap to get from the end of the fiscal year at the end of September to past the election, maybe into another administration. So they’re getting off to a fast start. But at the same time, they’re a little skeptical as to what they can get signed into law until maybe 2021.
Tom Temin: Wow, so there’s pressure on the Senate, which is always later than the House in finishing its appropriations bills. But even if the Senate does finish up in time, then there’s wrangling because they’ll have different takes on the budget then?
Jack Fitzpatrick: Right. So House appropriators, as you mentioned, tend to move faster on this. So you’re probably going to hear some news in the spring and summer about what House Democrats are doing on funding the government. And the Senate appropriators are trying to get ahead a little faster than they were able to this last year, going towards fiscal 2020. But the expectations, when I talked to appropriators, are pretty low when it comes to sort of melding them together and coming up with a bicameral deal. Because there’s, just it’s difficult to get everybody to compromise when you’re heading toward an election in 2020, and also keep in mind they’re going to be out, probably for much of the month of October while people go on the campaign trail, not just a presidential election but congressional elections. So that just limits their schedule and their ability to meet and get things passed. So we’ll see a lot of work get done during the summer. But there is really a time crunch and and probably not much incentive for compromise when it comes to getting House Democrats and Senate Republicans and people on Donald Trump’s side, whether it’s OMB or Steven Mnuchin coming in — it’s gonna be difficult for them to all get together and create something that could actually be signed into law.
Tom Temin: Jack Fitzpatrick is Congress reporter for Bloomberg Government. Thanks so much for joining me.
Jack Fitzpatrick: Thanks for having me
Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.federalnewsnetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.