Paul Ryan
Credit: Tony Alter/Flickr

The House of Representatives is supposed to return to legislative business today at 2pm. The wheels on their bus aren’t exactly turning smoothly so it’s hard to be sure what their plan is since it keeps changing. They’ve abandoned the plan I called the dumbest ever back on July 14th, to pass this year’s appropriations bills in one giant package that their members would not have even been able to read. Instead, they appear to have scaled that back to what they’re calling a “minibus” bill (as opposed to a omnibus one) that will only include defense spending, an Energy and Water bill that involves our nuclear weapons, the money for veterans, and funding for the border wall.

The border wall money is interesting for a few reasons. One is that it probably can’t pass through the House as a standalone item. Another is that it really ought to be a part of the Homeland Security appropriation bill, but that isn’t one of the bills that they’re planning on including in their minibus.  And a third is that they have what looks like a bit of subterfuge planned to ram the funding through despite the bipartisan opposition to the wall.

This all become (somewhat) clear during an exchange on the House floor last week between House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

During their Thursday colloquy on the House floor, Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., asked Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to explain the process under which the consolidated “minibus” appropriations bill would be considered.

McCarthy said that the minibus will be considered under a structured rule and that “we assume that there will be hundreds of amendments,” and that that is why he expects there will be late votes next week.

Hoyer asked McCarthy if he expects “we will bring the other eight [appropriations] bills to the floor in September.”

McCarthy replied: “I do intend to bring the rest of the appropriations bills through this floor and get them done to send them to the Senate.”

Hoyer noted that McCarthy mentioned earlier in the colloquy that the minibus would include funding for a border wall and that the Homeland Security bill is not in the appropriations package, and then asked him which bill the funding would be included in.

McCarthy said that the funding “will be an amendment made in Rules for the bill.”

Hoyer asked McCarthy to clarify as to whether the funding for the border wall would be an amendment automatically adopted as part of agreeing to the rule for the bill or if the amendment would be one made in order for floor consideration in the Committee of the Whole.

McCarthy said that he “can’t promise what the Rules Committee will do.” He continued: “The Rules Committee will find the right place to apply it, and we’ll be able to have the discussion on the floor.”

Hoyer said that he would hope McCarthy will make it known to the Rules Committee that “we ought to have that as a free-standing amendment, not incorporated in a rule that the vote for the rule or a vote against the rule is in of itself a vote on the wall itself.”

I don’t know if you understand that or not, but it looks like they’re going to try to sneak the wall funding into the rule under which the overall bill will be considered rather than having it actually included as an itemized appropriation. In a way, it makes no difference. But doing it this way helps members who oppose the funding make the argument that they never voted for it directly. It may also make it impossible to strike the funding out using an amendment, making the only way to kill the funding to defeat the entire minibus bill. Conversely, conservatives who don’t like the levels of spending in the four appropriation bills will be able to argue that they did vote for the wall funding. And this will be important to them because the funding will surely never pass in the Senate or become law.

Personally, while this is all opaque enough to defy understanding by all but the tiniest fraction of Americans, I don’t think legislating this way does anything but make people more cynical about politics. The so-called opponents of wall funding will actually vote to fund the wall. The budget hawks will vote for big spending with the excuse that they were trying to help Trump keep his wall promise. Everyone will understand, however, that the funding won’t actually materialize because Senate Democrats won’t allow it. So, the funding will be in the House bill (assuming it passes, which is not at all assured) but it won’t be in the final bill after it has been reconciled with the Senate version.

It’s a clever play that protects Republican lawmakers who want to avoid accountability, but the results are still unsatisfactory no matter how you look at it. Ultimately, the people will look at what actually happened (more spending) and what didn’t happen (a wall on the Mexican border) and conclude that the Republicans can’t keep their promises. When they try to find someone to blame, the Republicans will say “not me, it’s the other guy” and then say the Senate Democrats are responsible.

This is the way Congress has tanked their approval numbers over the last decade without a corresponding defeat for very many incumbents.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at