House able to finally start taking up some normal business

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The House is starting to turn its attention to some ordinary business, namely crafting appropriations bills for the 2021 fiscal year. For better or worse, though, the budget cap notion is getting stretched further than a face mask on hippo. For what to expect, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Bloomberg Government congressional reporter Jack Fitzpatrick.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Jack, good to have you on.

Jack Fitzpatrick: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: All right. So what can we expect in the week ahead on the appropriations front? I mean, I think that’s what people are turning their attention to now because the fiscal year is ticking away as we speak.

Jack Fitzpatrick: Yeah. So they are going to have to turn their attention to some of the regular legislation that they in normal circumstances would have been working on for at least a couple months. appropriations is a big one of them. You know, in a normal year, they probably would have started markups maybe late April or May. They have been talking about a schedule where they work on these bills, and then actually get markups done starting in July, starting in the week of July 6. So right now they’re in this mode where house appropriators are working on actually writing their bills. There is though a debate in the early stages because of the coronavirus and a couple other factors where there’s sort of renegotiating bits of the budget cap debate that they had in 2019 when they set the discretionary spending limits. The expectation that they’ll have to have really a sustained increase in funding for public health funds means that there’s at least some bipartisan support for actually making exemptions to those budget caps so they could boost things like CDC and NIH significantly. So they’re having that broader discussion on what’s the the budget framework gonna be under these new circumstances. They’re working on the bills themselves and trying to race to get them ready to actually have them out and mark them up by July. And then of course sort of adjacent to that they’re going to start the behind closed doors, mostly defense authorization markups, which isn’t spending but in the Senate, they will this week, start those markups there.

Tom Temin: Now with respect to those spending bills that they’re starting to frame in, is the house ahead. Is the senate ahead or what’s the dynamic there?

Jack Fitzpatrick: As usual, the House is ahead, they’re always sort of on a faster pace. It is a little confusing to track this year because they’re also simultaneously working on more coronavirus legislation. And a lot of the appropriators kind of had to juggle things and spend a lot of their time getting ready for that HEROES Act that they did in the house. So I know that even a month ago some of the bills, some of the members who were working on bills unrelated to that, had significant drafting of legislation done. I know for example, the Homeland Security appropriations bill Lucille Roybal Allard, the subcommittee chair was asked to get a first draft of her bill done roughly a month ago. And then she goes back and forth with leadership. So things aren’t exactly finished. But also then you look at members working on health care appropriations, it seems that they kind of put off their work for a while. So the House has gotten some work done. The Senate spent longer trying to set their top line allocations. The House had preliminary ones set in April, and then the Senate was really debating it because they had a harder time coming to any kind of an agreement for what to do with the budget cap. So that kind of conversation continues, but the House is clearly ahead so far.

Tom Temin: Yeah. And given that idea that because of the need for health spending budget caps here and there will go away. That could garner well for a lot of agencies, and my evidence for that is we have a big effort going on in NIH, a health related agency to find COVID Rapid Response types of bio engineering efforts going on. But you also have a similar effort going on in the intelligence community of all places. So it sounds like a lot of people might try to capitalize on COVID-19 and pandemic spending tendencies to get some more for their own programs.

Jack Fitzpatrick: Well, yeah, I mean, first of all, on that note, you look at this emergency legislation, and if you look at the appropriations sections, there’s something for everybody because everybody needed something, whether it’s for it capabilities because of their employees working from home. In a similar vein. I think a lot of agencies are going to get a second look when it comes to alright this would be a reasonable time to give you a little boost, especially maybe IT capabilities or the safety of their own workplace and building and cleaning and that kind of thing. And also keep in mind, money is fungible. So if they’re doing exemptions to the budget caps, they’re effectively lifting the budget caps and a boost to NIH effectively would mean there wouldn’t have to be offsetting cuts elsewhere. So if you’re kind of trying to suss out what to expect for your own agency’s budget, even if it’s unrelated, it’s probably good news for you that we’re not sure heading into just a tighter fiscal atmosphere.

Tom Temin: You know, I guess the swiss cheese of the budget caps is looking like more and more hole and less and less cheese. And what about NDAA? I guess that’s more of a Senate purview at this point. Now, you mentioned that briefly.

Jack Fitzpatrick: Yes. So this week, they are starting those early subcommittee markups in the Senate. Those are behind closed doors other than one other than the personnel subcommittee. One area that that’s that’s going to be interesting, aside from usual debates that they have, there are I know Senator Brian Schatz, the Democrat from Hawaii, he has said he plans to introduce an amendment to the NDAA bill that would bar the military from what they now normally do, which is sending certain equipment to local police stations in response to the protests that we’ve seen, and the debate about racial disparities and policing. And you could probably even apply this to the appropriations debate too. That’s an issue where, even if it seems to be unrelated legislation to issues of policing, it’s kind of becoming such a dominant issue politically that everybody’s looking to see what they could offer to just normal legislation that’s must pass legislation. So we know that that’s gonna pop up in the NDAA markups.

Tom Temin: That’s right. Well, the NDAA is like a big magnet and all these wishes are metal shavings, iron shavings, and they just get stuck onto that NDAA because it’s got a pass. And then briefly, what’s going on with the OMB director — and anythe other significant nominations? Can we see more on that this week?

Jack Fitzpatrick: So, we had two hearings last over the course of the last week for Senate Homeland Security, and the Budget Committee. Russell Vaught who’s been the acting OMB Director for a year and a half or so has finally been nominated to be the permanent director. It’s been interesting to listen to some of the reactions on that level because…

Tom Temin: He’s not loved on Capitol Hill, is he?

Jack Fitzpatrick: You know, Republicans have basically stood by him. When he was nominated as Deputy Director of OMB. He, he passed his confirmation passed very, very narrowly and actually had to have Mike Pence as the tiebreaker. We’ve heard a bunch of criticism from Democrats but no Republicans have said, Hey, I’m switching and I oppose you. Keep in mind OMB’s role in the withholding of Ukraine funds, keep in mind the fact that present Trump was actually tweeting at Vought a couple of weeks ago saying I might withhold certain unspecified funds from states like Nevada for expanding mail in ballots. So OMB has been at some really at the center of partisan controversies, but we’re republicans haven’t really turned on him. It was so close, originally, that I’m curious to see if anybody on the Republican side gets a little frustrated. We don’t know exactly what the schedule is going to be for bringing him up for a vote. But we have gone through those first two hearings on the Senate side and the tension wasn’t necessarily relieved.

Tom Temin: Jack Fitzpatrick is congressional reporter at Bloomberg government. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jack Fitzpatrick: Thank you for having me.