U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT, explains his filibuster to the press
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT, explains his filibuster to the press | J. Taylor Rushing

Appropriations process in knots on Capitol Hill

Congressional appropriators this month began facing what may be a new reality on Capitol Hill – a critical part of the federal funding process held hostage to sharper-than-ever ideological battles.

In both the House and Senate, Appropriations bills that traditionally have been key to Congress’ power and ability to fund the government have become bogged down in philosophical battles over issues that, in past times, were confined to separate, stand-alone bills.

In the Senate, the new reality was clearly evident in the 15-hour-long filibuster staged by Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut that blocked a Commerce, Science and Justice Appropriations bill on the Senate floor. 

Murphy, joined by 40 other Democrats, launched the filibuster to demand votes to prevent Americans on terrorist "watch lists" from being able to purchase firearms, as well as an effort to expand background checks to include gun shows and Internet sales.

Democrats tried and failed to advance the ideas late last year, after the mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., but are renewing the effort after last weekend’s mass murder of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub. The shooter, who is also deceased, was on the FBI’s terrorist watch list in 2013 and 2014.

Beyond the gun issue, however, the larger struggle is over whether to keep Appropriations bills free of such ideological battles which often take the form of “poison pill” riders, or addendums that change governmental policy by prohibiting funding for a particular purpose.

In the House this month, ideological disputes have arisen on the Appropriations committee over how to defend the U.S. against the Zika virus, whether to forgive federal loans to the city of Flint, Mich., as it struggles with its water crisis, and whether to keep or discard the six-year-old package of Wall Street reform laws enacted after the 2008 economic collapse. 

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have publicly called for certain issues to go through the appropriations process to increase scrutiny – such as how federal funds would be spent on the Zika virus, for example.

Democrats say they have no choice but to attach their issues to Appropriations bills, noting Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s vow to return the Senate to “regular order” and pass regular Appropriations bills. With most of Congress’s other work proving impossible due to election-year politics, they say the appropriations process is the only way they can be heard.

“These days, Appropriations bills are some of the few that move, “ Murphy told AMI Newswire. “If you have regular order, you could have non-Appropriations bills come forward and have these policy debates in other forums. But right now, we’re having these policy debates on Appropriations bills because they’re the only trains that end up making it out of the station.”

Senate Appropriations Committee members themselves say the panel itself has been diligent at keeping its bills free of riders, leading to multiple bipartisan votes on so-called “clean” bills. But Democrats also said it is wholly appropriate to tie the gun debate to a justice funding bill.

“There are very few opportunities to force a vote on issues of critical importance, and in the wake of inaction for so many years, and now yet another horrific mass shooting, a justice funding bill is a totally appropriate place for us to have this debate,” said Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.

Republicans express annoyance at the Democratic efforts, saying it threatens a critical function of Congress.

“It takes up time,” said GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “There’s a limited amount of time available on the floor.”

Asked if the wave of ideological battles stalling Appropriations bills is prescient of the future, Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer of New York simply said, “Yes… That’s the way it is now.”

But other veteran Republican appropriators such as Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama say ideological battles are nothing new in the annual process.

“Funding goes to the heart of everything, but most legislative initiatives never get a vote and never get passed,” he said.

In the House, just last week, yet another ideological battle arose in the Appropriations Committee over whether to block the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules and regulation authority over broadband rates. 

Net neutrality has been a particularly controversial issue, with President Barack Obama and the FCC proposing to reclassify broadband internet service as a telecommunications service.

Republicans attached the FCC provisions to the Appropriations bill, which passed on a divided committee vote. GOP Rep. Ander Crenshaw of Florida said the ideas would “turn the FCC’s focus to ‘mission critical’ work and away from politically charged rulemakings.”