Editor’s Note: Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group based in Washington, DC. He is also a former senior policy adviser to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.
It’s no way to run a government. But these days, it’s unfortunately the only way to run a government.
The 4,155-page omnibus spending bill negotiated by the Senate Appropriations Committee was released Monday night, and Congress hopes to have it passed by Christmas.
Devotees of good government have plenty of reason to complain about the process. Forcing lawmakers to vote for bills that no one could have read in their entirety has become a crutch Congress relies on too often, even to just keep the lights on.
But Republicans in the House are livid for another reason. If Senate Republicans had refused to do a deal, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, or whoever the future Speaker of the House will be, would have had more leverage in trying to force spending cuts on the Biden administration come next month.
Republicans won’t want to hear it, but this admittedly unsightly product will pay dividends in the long run by removing a potential stumbling block from their path in early 2023.
Nonetheless, 13 House members, including rock-ribbed fiscal conservative Rep. Chip Roy of Texas and America First poster boy Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, released a letter excoriating Senate GOP leadership for supporting this “indefensible assault on the American people.” They promised to oppose “any legislative priority of those senators who vote for this bill - including the Republican leader,” and that sentiment was endorsed via tweet by McCarthy.
But Republicans don’t have to embrace the lame-duck deal to appreciate the silver lining of something getting passed, as ugly as it may seem. Without an appropriations deal, the federal government would have been facing a temporary extension of funding that would expire early next year. That would have been a golden opportunity for the firebrand caucus of the GOP to inaugurate their time in the House majority by provoking a government shutdown.
Prior Republican-led shutdowns in 1995-1996 and 2013 led to poor poll numbers for GOP leaders and failed to achieve much, if any, meaningful policy change. There’s very little reason to believe this go-round would be any different, and some members may be secretly breathing a sigh of relief to have that taken off the table.
While Republicans have plenty to complain about the process, they also have reason to feel a little frustrated with how some negotiations that could have provided meaningful assistance to parents and families didn’t take place.
For example, many progressives hoped to resurrect the Biden-era expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), which was always a fool’s errand, as the lack of work requirements in the credit were a non-starter for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, not to mention many Republicans. But for most of the year, the White House’s stated bargaining position was that CTC expansion had to be done with no work requirements, only to reverse course at the last minute.
If a deal on the CTC were to have been struck, Democrats should have been having serious talks over the past year with Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah or Josh Hawley of Missouri, all of whom have proposed variants of pro-family tax reform. Perhaps the upcoming era of divided governance will give Democrats time to explore areas of common ground.
Another common-sense initiative that fell victim to partisan bickering was legislation that would have brought much-needed clarity to the legal landscape around accommodations for expectant mothers in the workplace. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which was endorsed by conservative pro-life groups and left-leaning women’s organizations, got caught up in questions about whether business could be forced to provide benefits to women who choose abortion.
Fortuantely, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana helped lead bipartisan talks to resolve some of these concerns and got the act successfully included as an amendment to the omnibus, but the very fact that the negotiations went down to the wire shows how too many in Congress on both sides prefer culture war battles to compromise.
And, of course, there is a whole slew of pork barrel spending, ranging from the offensive to the absurd, that Republicans will take no small deal of pleasure in running against, such as $575 million in grants for “family planning/reproductive health” in the name of biodiversity, or $3 million for bee-friendly highways.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing good in the omnibus. Aside from the big-ticket items that keep the government functioning, Congress included funding for a task force and hotline on maternal health, and ordered a study on the impact of tech use on teen mental health outcomes.
They also increased funding for the child care block grant, reauthorized the evidence-based maternal and early childhood home visiting program and extended funding for covering low-income mothers for up to a year after birth under Medicaid.
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For now, avoiding at least one self-inflicted wound may be the best parting gift Republicans could ask for from an era of unified Democratic control. And the fact that 21 GOP senators voted yes on a procedural motion to advance the deal, and almost as many GOP senators voted yes on the final package, suggests many in the upper chamber know that.
Meanwhile, future opportunities for legislative brinksmanship already beckon – presumptive Speaker McCarthy may feel he has no choice than to give into his devil-may-care faction to try to force budget cuts in a new spending deal next fall or the always-perilous debt ceiling negotiations. But starting off Republican House control with a government shutdown would reward voters, who signaled a desire for normalcy in the midterms, with instability.
No one is saying rank-and-file House Republicans must like the lame-duck omnibus deal. But they should quietly thank cooler heads in the Senate from saving them from themselves.