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Senate Vote: 339     Vote Date: Dec 18th, 2015

Issue:  H.R. 2029, The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 and the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015. Question: On the Motion to Concur in the House Amendments to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 2029. (Originally a bill making appropriations for military construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and related agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes.)

Result:  Agreed to in Senate, 65 to 33, 2 not voting. (See earlier House Roll Calls 703 and 705.) Became Public Law 114-113 (signed by the President 12-18-2015). GOP and Democrats scored.

Freedom First Society: The heart of H.R. 2029 was a $1.15 trillion omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government through September 2016 (FY2016).

With overwhelming Democratic support (36 to 6) and Republicans split (28 to 26), this bipartisan, bicameral “compromise” increased spending to the new limits allowed by the Boehner-negotiated budget deal. As has happened so often in the past, the GOP leadership threw in the towel with regard to any immediate cuts in spending, promising instead to get tough down the road.

We have assigned (good vote) to the Nays and (bad vote) to the Yeas. (P = voted present; ? = not voting; blank = not listed on roll call.)

Bill Summary: Note: H.R. 2029 was introduced, and earlier considered in both the House and Senate, as “Making appropriations for military construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and related agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes.”Through two House amendments, H.R. 2029 became the vehicle for The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 and the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015. 

This massive legislation was filed early on the morning of 12-16-15. In the House, the two amendments were considered separately. The first amendment extended $650 billion worth of tax breaks and made $590 billion of them permanent. That amendment was approved in House Roll Call 703 on 12-17-15.

The second amendment, approved in House Roll Call 705 earlier on the 18th, was a $1.15 trillion omnibus spending bill that funds the government through September 2016 (FY2016).

Analysis: This bipartisan, bicameral “compromise” for funding the government through the end of FY2016 was negotiated on December 16, just a few days prior to the end of the 1st session of the 114th Congress. To aid passage in the House, the measure was divided into two parts, the “Tax Extenders” package and the omnibus appropriations package.

The Tax Extenders package enjoyed overwhelming House GOP support (241 to 3) and significant support from Democrats (77 in favor, as opposed to 106 against). Passage of this GOP sweetener was deemed necessary to facilitate the adoption of the full package in the Senate. As we shall see, it was a poor exchange.

By contrast, passage of the omnibus spending bill was opposed by a significant block (95) of House Republicans but had overwhelming (166 to 18) Democratic support.

According to AP (12-16-15): “Democrats, despite their minority party status in Congress, exacted a steep price in the negotiations, thanks to Obama’s veto pen and Republicans’ need for their votes on the spending bill. ‘We may not be in the majority but we’re feeling that these goals are on track,’ boasted Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.”

One of most vociferous critics of the measure from the GOP side, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, argued:

This bill explains why Republican and Democratic voters are in open rebellion … they elect people that they believe are going to take action to protect their security, their jobs, their wages and what do they get? A bill that is worse than current law, goes in the opposite direction…. No wonder people are upset. This legislation represents a further disenfranchisement of the American voter. — Roll Call, 12-17-15.

A Poor Exchange

A routine congressional priority has been to extend a number of tax breaks that expired at the start of the year. Many of these tax breaks enjoy bipartisan support and would likely have been extended without being attached to the omnibus spending bill.

However, under the rules that drive the Congressional Budget Office, legislation, such as GOP proposed reform of the tax code, cannot use the replacement of temporary tax breaks as offsets in calculating the impact of the legislation on deficits.

So the big GOP promise with the “Tax Extenders” package is that, by making $590 billion in 22 tax breaks permanent, it would be easier to win passage of a future tax reform package. Of course, the important challenge is to reduce federal spending and on that Congress failed miserably. 

Prior backroom budget deal

At the end of October, outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner negotiated a backroom budget deal that gave President Obama and the big spenders everything they wanted. (See Senate Vote 294.) The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 drew the unanimous support of House and Senate Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi. Only a minority of Republicans in both chambers supported it.

The “budget deal” raised the sequester-imposed budget caps, providing new budget authority for FY 2016 and FY 2017 (and removed the limit on the National Debt through March 16, 2017). This allowed House and Senate appropriators to develop plans for increased spending following the expiration of the Continuing Resolution on December 11.

Following the enactment of the budget deal, we saw no suggestion that perhaps it would be better for the American people if the federal government didn’t spend to the new limits. Media reports had focused on the horrible plight of a spending-limited federal government, in particular GOP complaints over the previous cap on defense spending and liberal Democrat complaints over the companion cap on non-defense domestic spending.

South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford was one of the few House opponents allowed time to speak against the budget agreement. His assessment provided needed perspective:

As draconian as [the budget caps] are, they represent the only piece of financial restraint in Washington, D.C., that has encumbered this entity….

Therefore, I would remind everyone of what Admiral Mike Mullen said, who is the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said that the greatest threat to our civilization was the national debt. At the end of the day, this bill compounds it; and for that reason, I would respectfully encourage a “no.”

No “honeymoon” justified

Anticipating the favorable House omnibus spending vote, Washington’s Roll Call (“Ryan Gets High Marks for First Big Showdown,” 12-17-15) reminded us of the current political line:

John A. Boehner’s last days as speaker in October were spent, as he said, cleaning out the barn, or cutting legislative deals to help his successor, Paul D. Ryan, get off to a good start.

This meant that the Democrats would get the money they wanted, while the Republicans would get a few riders. Surprisingly, Roll Call candidly described the blatant “bipartisan” politics that are destroying America’s prosperity:

A budget deal crafted during Boehner’s final days in office will allow House Republicans to pass appropriations bills next year at levels that House Democrats can live with.

Following publication of the negotiated package the previous day, Ryan told reporters:

I don’t think this is the way government should work. This is not how appropriations should work…. We played the cards that we were dealt…. In divided government, you don’t get everything you want. This is a bipartisan compromise; this is a bicameral compromise.

Ryan promised that for FY 2017, the House would seek regular order, wherein the 12 appropriations subcommittees would do their work and have their work presented to the full House, getting away from the last-minute omnibus approach.

But these comments perpetuate two massive deceptions.

“Power of the Purse”

The first deception conceals the House’s (and even the Senate’s) true power of the purse. A “conservative” majority in either chamber can agree to fund what it feels is appropriate and merely abstain from funding anything deemed inappropriate. It does not have to compromise with socialists to perpetuate unconstitutional spending.

The “must compromise” deception conceals the proper strategy of funding with individual appropriations bills, making it difficult for a big-spending president to refuse to sign everything by claiming that one chamber is “shutting down” the government.

If the House truly needed more time to prepare the individual appropriations bills, why not offer another continuing resolution for a limited time? Why fund the federal government for the remaining nine months of FY 2016 at $1.15 trillion?

Serious spending cuts did not need to be postponed until FY 2017 to the further detriment of the country (deferring tough action to future Congresses has been a regular political ploy for decades). But with favorable press coverage the extended deal insulated politicians from pressure from concerned constituents when they run for reelection in November.

The essential standard — the U.S. Constitution

Regular order with individual appropriations bills is essential for a committed House to use its Power of the Purse to tame the federal monster.

But regular order is not enough. A second deception conceals the essential standard.

The real problem with federal spending is that there is insufficient will in Congress, driven by an informed electorate, to confine the Federal government to its constitutionally authorized role. Representatives and senators from both parties have accepted the unconstitutional usurpations of authority during the past century that have created the federal monster and reduced the authority of the States.

Why is the Constitution ignored? The sad truth is that an increasing number of congressmen in both parties, particularly among the leadership, are simply beholden to Establishment influence and willing to implement its totalitarian agenda. With the media supporting the same agenda, they know that uninformed voters can be satisfied with fluff.

Virtually all votes on measures that would reverse the growth in federal power and threaten that agenda are mere posturing votes, intended to impress the voters, but not become law.   And when hard votes are needed to fuel the Establishment agenda, as with this $1.15 trillion omnibus appropriations bill, the leadership of the conservative posturing GOP finds the pretext for teeming up with liberal Democrats to betray America, allowing many of its own members to maintain a tough image back home. Only a scant majority (28 to 26) of the GOP voted for this bill.

Today, there are, unfortunately, few sitting representatives or senators who are demanding that the Constitution (i.e., the law regulating government) be enforced. Even “conservative” politicians argue primarily over waste or what we can afford, not over the open-ended claim of federal authority to provide a never-ending array of services, welfare, and oppressive regulation.

In particular, the leaders of both parties behave as though the Constitution does not impose any restraints.

Socialist Democrats argue the insidious line that government programs are the solution to all kinds of disparities and inequities. Establishment Republicans, on the other hand, object to some of these programs as burdens on the economy. And both argue primarily over how much America can afford for the federal government to spend and whether our national debt and deficits are more of a danger than not moving forward with federal programs.

In short, the GOP leadership has managed to pacify many conservatives by appearing to be the voice of restraint.   But as Napoleon pointed out: “The purely defensive is doomed to defeat.”

The federal monster cannot be tamed with defensive tinkering. Limited government requires respect for hard limits. Only the Constitution provides those limits. Congress must be made to obey the law (i.e., the Constitution).

Serious rollbacks of prior “socialist” usurpations requires a committed House with backbone supplied from a determined, informed electorate. As examples, the federal government has no authority to be involved in education, housing, and health care. (The latter intrusion required almost a century of socialist agitation to accomplish.)

Even though the will to roll back these socialist inroads does not exist in Congress today, responsible representatives must obey their oath of office to uphold the Constitution and not compromise on basic principle. They must set the example and lead the way for reinforcements.