To hear them tell it, House Republicans are solely focused on fiscal conservatism, on undercutting the appropriations levels agreed to in the Kevin McCarthy-Joe Biden debt ceiling law so they can “rein in federal spending.”
That’s what they’d like to be fighting about. But their actions, the riders they’ve larded up these bills with, reveal a different priority: an obsession with fighting battles in the culture war, a fixation on extinguishing any semblance of abortion access in particular, no matter the repeatedly demonstrated political radioactivity of the issue post-Dobbs.
The add-ons are less poison pills and more a poison buffet for Democrats, ensuring that these versions of the bills will never see the light of law. They risk cutting House Republicans out of legislative relevance altogether, shifting the onus to the Senate to write bills that can actually pass. They could create a debt ceiling law redux where the legislation ultimately passes on the backs of mostly Democrats plus the Republicans still willing to play ball. Or they could shut down the government.
But none of those unpleasant outcomes is enough to change House Republicans’ behavior, which has now spanned multiple appropriations committees, curdled once collegial relationships between Democratic and Republican committee leaders and left the lower chamber with a tranche of bills that, if they remain in their current form, will be dead on arrival in the Senate.
“How much taxpayer money are we spending on these things if they’re not intending them to go through? And this is the party of ‘financial responsibility’ that insists we have to lower the debt,” a senior Democratic aide told TPM. “Honestly, these bills were crap from the beginning.”
These culture war proposals fall under recurring categories.
One is abortion, the same issue that sent Democrats fleeing from the once-bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act when House Republicans included a provision that would prohibit the Defense Secretary from covering or reimbursing service members’ abortion-related expenses. Democrats told reporters that they’d heard from Republican colleagues expressing vexation that the party kept returning to this losing issue — only to vote for the final product anyway.
Abortion restrictions have cropped up in the appropriations process again and again, even in unexpected places.
In the bill to fund Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, a rider would largely prevent the VA from implementing a rule that allows the agency to provide access to abortions for pregnant veterans and VA beneficiaries when the health or life of the pregnant woman is at risk, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
In the Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA funding bill, a GOP rider would reverse the FDA’s late 2021 decision to allow the abortion drug mifepristone to be dispensed in certified pharmacies in addition to traditional health care settings like hospitals and clinics.
In the Homeland Security subcommittee, a rider specifies that no funds earmarked for ICE can be used to pay for an abortion, with very limited exceptions.
And in the Financial Services and General Government subcommittee, Republicans targeted abortion both for federal employees and for residents of Washington D.C., which has a home rule system with congressional oversight that allows federal lawmakers to interfere with its local governance. The GOP provisions would both prohibit the use of federal or local funds for nearly all abortion services in D.C., and require that the district report back to the House Republicans that it has followed the congressionally imposed (locally opposed) abortion restrictions. That reporting requirement would mandate that the district detail its compliance with Republicans’ “Partial Birth Abortion Ban,” including “whether the District of Columbia preserved each child’s remains for appropriate examination during the investigation” and “whether the District of Columbia conducted a thorough investigation of the death of each child and what each investigation showed.”
Many of these appropriations bills are also peppered with riders prohibiting any use of funds to teach the Republican bugaboo “Critical Race Theory,” cutting off gender affirming-related health care for transgender people and obliterating diversity and inclusion offices and initiatives.
Of these Christmas trees hung with Republican proposals, the Financial Services bill is the Rockefeller.
Along with anti-CRT and anti-trans riders, the Financial Services bill also includes Republican measures related to various fabricated controversies, such as provisions to block the Consumer Product Safety Commission from banning gas stoves (which it has no intention to do) and to prohibit the use of funds to “discriminate against a person who speaks, or acts, in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief, or moral conviction, that marriage is, or should be recognized as, a union of one man and one woman.” It also has provisions taking further aim at D.C., including one that allows anyone with a concealed carry permit to have a handgun in the district, including on the Metro, and another that seeks to knock down a local D.C. law prohibiting right turns on red lights.
“Unfortunately, the Fiscal Year 2024 House appropriations bills seem to be more about meeting woefully insufficient spending levels and waging culture wars than adequately funding the government and providing local priorities with the resources they deserve,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the ranking member on Financial Services, told TPM in a statement. “Whether restricting reproductive health care funding for the District of Columbia, attempting to rescind critically needed funding for FBI intelligence and law enforcement officers, or spitefully withholding funding from organizations that serve our LGBTQ+ neighbors, a small but vocal group of right-wing Republicans have needlessly turned this year’s Appropriations bills into a polarizing legislative process.”
Culture Warriors > Colleagues
As mad as Democrats are about the content of the provisions that Republicans have hitched on to the bills, they’re also steamed at the way they’ve done it.
“We were not given a heads up — the markup had started when we found out,” the senior Democratic aide said, referring to one of these culture war amendments. “It was very clear that it was intentional. All of the Democrats’ offices were texting each other, ‘did you know about this?’”
Such tactics have soured relationships between the bipartisan committee heads particularly on under-the-radar subcommittees, some of the last remaining corners of comity as partisan warfare has become the order of the day.
“The old saying is, ‘There are Democrats, there are Republicans, and there are Appropriators,’” Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), ranking member on the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies subcommittee told TPM in a statement. “But the all-out assault on comity and common-sense by extreme conservative members — not to mention the budget deal that Speaker McCarthy torched just days after agreeing to it — seriously erodes that.”
“Bowing to that extremist agenda is especially saddening on the MilConVA subcommittee, which has such a long-standing tradition of bipartisanship,” she added.
Thanks to the rogue House Republicans, the lower chamber is now riven by committee betrayals, behind in its schedule to pass these bills and on track to produce thousands of pages of legislation that will likely bear little resemblance to the final appropriations.
“Republicans are using these riders to spread hate and distract from the terrible cuts that they are including in these bills,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the top Democratic House appropriator, said at a markup last week.
“I am fearful,” she added later in the day, “that we are on a trajectory, at best, for continuing resolutions. And at worst, a government shutdown.”