Congress and the President just passed a new spending bill, and just as with the previous bills this year it’s likely to set off some fireworks on Capitol Hill and beyond.
But wait. Didn’t we just pass a large spending bill? Technically yes. President Trump signed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 in February, which increases federal spending for the next two years. However, the Act dealt specifically with federal spending, while the new omnibus is for appropriations, meaning it directs money to different programs and agencies. It’s different than the last spending bill, but that’s not why this omnibus package stands out from previous fiscal legislation.
The $1.3 trillion omnibus currently on the table is the last chance this year for lawmakers to rack up any sort of accomplishments before November’s midterm elections. In other words, many lawmakers need something, anything really, to point to in their home districts as proof they’ve gotten something done that could justify their staying in office.
What does that mean exactly? To understand this question, one needs to look at what’s in this appropriations bill.
The majority of the package will be funneled into domestic and military spending. Chief among the former is $1.6 billion meant for President Trump’s wall along the southern border. Another $4.6 billon is going toward the opioid addiction crisis, while $50 million is included in a school safety measure to increase training to recognize potential gun violence as well as increasing compliance with criminal background checks during gun purchases.
While the package touches on major political issues, many of the funds are earmarks for projects in various congressional districts. Between those earmarks and the aforementioned policy issues, lawmakers have crammed a myriad of provisions into this spending package which, depending on the circumstances, could hurt or help them come November when the polls open.
The Political Pitfalls
Since this legislation is likely the last Congress will pass before the elections, much is riding on what made it into the package and what didn’t. The two biggest policy battles tied to the bill are immigration and gun control, which will both be heavy hitters in this year’s elections.
Regarding immigration, Trump won something of a victory with his border wall funding, a top priority for Trump going back to the campaign trail. However, the victory is only a partial one. Trump actually wanted $25 billion for the wall, but Democrats refused to budge and forced a compromise with the GOP; in exchange for $1.6 billion in wall funding, the GOP was forced to cut hiring funds for new border agents from the omnibus.
Additionally, there are no provisions for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, something Democrats had been hoping for. Democrats shut the government down temporarily back in January to push a debate on DACA in Congress, and while the debate itself happened, nothing was ultimately accomplished to secure a deal for DACA recipients. This won’t win either party any favors from a public that supports some sort of compromise on DACA. A Harvard/Harris poll from January found the majority of Americans were in favor of a deal in Congress that would give undocumented immigrants brought by their parents work permits and a path to citizenship.
Republicans can possibly spin the wall funding as an accomplishment to constituents, as it falls in line with the president’s agenda. However, the compromise over hiring more border security may be seen by Trump’s base and immigration hardliners as a betrayal by Hill Republicans, lambasting the so-called RINOs who are trying to undercut border agents and thereby letting more illegals into the country. Democrats have more to gain politically, as they can now say they did undercut Trump’s divisive immigration policy. But when it comes to DACA and Dreamers, both parties have some explaining to do.
Next, there’s the issue of guns, a painful topic for many in the wake of last month’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.
In the aftermath of the shooting that left 17 people dead and many more inured, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found 68 percent of registered voters favor stricter gun laws. Similarly, a poll from CBS found 65 percent of respondents believed laws regarding gun sales should be stricter, while a CNN study concluded 70 percent of Americans wanted more gun control laws. Faced with this trend, it behooved both parties to have some kind of progress on guns in this legislation.
In fact, the deal reached by Congress is somewhat modest; in addition to a $50 million-a-year grant for school safety, it also includes the Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing, or STOP, School Violence bill, which is backed by groups such as Sandy Hook Promise. It also includes language permitting the Center for Disease Control to conduct research into gun violence but not advocate for gun control. And while there are provisions to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which bars criminals and people with mental health issues from buying guns, the compromise does not include universal background checks, something many Democrats and gun control advocates wanted.
The gun provisions are a mixed bag for both Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats can say they’ve made some strides in curbing easy access to guns, it won’t be seen as enough by their base or the majority of the public. Likewise, conservative Republicans and Second Amendment advocates are already fuming that there are any extra restrictions at all on who can or can’t buy guns. GOP leaders can tout the school safety additions, but should understand that it may only satisfy some within the party’s base who can’t see beyond gun control. Moreover, the majority of voters aren’t interested in school training as much as they are in more gun restrictions. All of which is to say that including universal background checks might have been a smart move for Republicans. Time will tell, but not heeding the polls on guns may come back to bite the GOP in November.
Spending bills by their nature are political, but the omnibus before Congress is unique; it comes as the last piece of legislation in an election year, and it comes during a hypersensitive political climate buoyed around a highly controversial president.
Republicans, for their part, have the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and whatever is in this bill to campaign on nationally and in their constituencies respectively. After their recent losses in Alabama and Pennsylvania, it’s clear that riding Donald Trump’s coattails alone isn’t enough to clinch victories. Likewise, Democrats can’t campaign solely on being anti-Trump; they must tout their advancements on issues like gun control and immigration, plus any goodies they worked into this package, if they hope to flip Congress in November.
One thing is clear: the passage of this spending bill can be seen as the unofficial start of high campaign season. How voters react to it all remains to be seen.