Imagine what would happen if Idaho legislators tried to sneak through a 2,232-page spending bill. They’d never get away with it, with the swarm of reporters covering the statehouse.
It becomes tricky for the Idaho media to keep track of the Idaho congressional delegation, which does its business from more than 2,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. Things such as an Omnibus spending bill, which is almost impossible to read and fully digest, are ignored – especially in late March, when the Idaho Legislature is buzzing with activity. Much of the attention from Idaho focused on Congressman Mike Simpson’s efforts to rename the Boulder White Clouds after former Gov. Cecil Andrus.
So, although the Idaho congressional delegation was divided on the omnibus spending bill, there was no debate. Simpson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee who helped write the package, voted for it and issued some news releases telling how good the bill would be for Idaho.
Congressman Raul Labrador, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, posted a short statement on Facebook expressing his opposition. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch said nary a word about the bill; they just voted against it.
Not much else was said about it until recently when Washington lobbyist Bill Riggs of Americans for Prosperity penned an op-ed taking aim at Simpson and Republicans for supporting the measure, and he drew Simpson’s attention in the process.
“Instead of tackling our overspending head-on, Republicans caved. The $1.3 trillion bill piled on billions in new expenditures,” Riggs wrote. He added that Simpson should have used his position on the Appropriations Committee to advocate for responsible budgeting and curb spending on entitlements, the largest contributor to the national debt.
Simpson was obligated to vote for the bill on the House floor because he chairs an appropriations subcommittee and helped write the darn thing. But Simpson, a strong-minded guy, is not hiding behind political obligations. He wrote an op-ed saying the spending bill was good for Idaho and was fiscally responsible.
“It will directly benefit Idahoans through reauthorization of Secure Rural Schools, full funding for PILT, reigning in the EPA and funding for the A10 Thunderbolt II based at Gowen Field. It included my fix for fire funding, which will allow us to decrease the cost severity of future wildfires,” Simpson said. The Idaho delegation spends a good chunk of its time battling those issues.
Simpson says it also provides strong support for the Idaho National Laboratory “to sustain its world-class research and development, including their work on cybersecurity, grid protection.”
Simpson hardly declares victory over the deficit. He agrees that more needs to be done with entitlements, but says there’s progress in cutting discretionary spending. He says that Congress has cut more than a trillion dollars over the last several years, “and that despite the increase to rebuild our military, discretionary spending in FY18 was lower than in FY10.”
Labrador and others want more cuts and faster progress. The Omnibus spending bill, Labrador said, breaks “every promise Republicans made to the American people over the last eight years. With the debt surging past $21 trillion, I could not in good conscience vote for a bill that would put our economy at risk and jeopardizes our children’s future. While it’s true the Omnibus has some victories for Idaho, the good parts of the bill should have been voted on separately. I reject the false choice that we can only advance good ideas by attaching them to a 2,232-page bill that add hundreds of billions of dollars to the debt and get voted on just hours after being introduced.”
Simpson agrees that it would be better for Congress to vote separately on spending bills, opposed to wrapping them in a large spending bill. Crapo and Risch, too, are opposed to governing through omnibus spending bills. But congressional business practices have been in place for decades and individual members are not going to change the rules overnight. Protest votes in Congress accomplish about as much as NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem.
Simpson is more concerned about what he can control – keeping Idaho’s interests at the forefront of his thinking and operating within the congressional framework, as flawed as it may be.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org