Kavanaugh Has Broken Congress. So How Did It Just Pass a Bunch of Bipartisan Budget and Spending Bills?

October 4, 2018, 11:30 PM UTC

Congress is absolutely, positively broken, with a split across party lines that may never be bridged. So how did the House and Senate just pass a bill to fund efforts to fight the illegal opioid trade and treat those addicted by 98-1 and 393-8 vote, respectively?

It’s a mystery. But the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 is the latest in a series of bills, largely budget related, that have passed both chambers and been signed by President Donald Trump, and that resulted from something that resembles “regular order,” in which bills are debated on the floor, amended, and pass with support from both parties—often with supermajorities or near unanimity. (Trump is expected to sign the opioid bill.)

A 5-year, nearly $100 billion FAA re-authorization bill that’s been roiling D.C. for years passed on Oct. 3 by 93-6 in the Senate and 398-23 in the House. The law doesn’t just provide money, but it does map a long-overdue plan for the FAA’s future.

Congress didn’t get through all 12 bills required by a 1974 budget law—that hasn’t happened since 1995—and it bundled some together. For instance, a defense appropriations bill signed into law by the president on Sept. 28 also covered health and human services, education, and labor. It had a total of over $850 billion in allocations, and passed 93-7 in the Senate and 361-61 in the House.

The defense bill included under $2 billion devoted to walls on the southern border, far below Trump’s demands. But he signed it regardless of previous promises to veto a budget that didn’t meet his wall spending target.

The bill also punted on passing remaining appropriations bills until Dec. 7, allowing continued funding to avoid shutting down parts of some agencies and departments. Nonetheless, this is the farthest along the process Congress has managed since 2009.

The fact that in the midst of partisan frenzy over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, this process has quietly and routinely progressed should be seen as more remarkable, but it’s been nearly overlooked as the bills have passed muster with disparate voting blocs and interests in each party. There’s no incentive for members of Congress to make a squawk as the process keeps trundling along.

The opioid bill isn’t part of the budget process, though it allocates roughly $8 billion over the next five years, a sum that those tracking the epidemic say is insufficient. (About $8.5 billion is separately committed this year.) Despite the crying need and dozens of separate proposals with hundreds of House sponsors among them, nothing previously coalesced. The bill, likely to be signed soon, creates new programs, reauthorizes old ones, and gives marching orders to several agencies.

This year’s appropriations process avoided most of the nasty fights as well as avoiding last-minute filibusters and threats of a government shutdown. Washington watchers aren’t sure if it portends more order in the future, because next year starts the presidential election cycle in earnest.

But given the fever gripping Washington and the country at large ahead of midterms, it may indicate that at the height of perceived dysfunction, Congress has figured out how to move some of the routine operation of government forward.

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