Congress

First women to lead spending panel have a mission: keep the lights on

Lowey, Granger had one government shutdown dumped in their laps. Now they’re trying to avoid another one

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, left, and ranking member Kay Granger are the first pair of women to lead the panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The first all-female duo leading the House Appropriations Committee since its Civil War-era creation is setting out to avoid the mess they walked into on Day One of their new roles — a government shutdown.

“I want to be very clear; I think there should be a commitment in the Congress — Democrats and Republicans working with the White House — to say, ‘We are adults, these are difficult issues, but we can resolve them,’” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey told CQ Roll Call this week in an interview alongside ranking member Kay Granger. “But throwing a tantrum and shutting down the government is not a responsible way to be a member of the government of the United States of America — whether you are in the legislative branch or the White House.”

Lowey, a New York Democrat, and Granger, a Texas Republican, couldn’t have more different backgrounds or represent more disparate constituencies.

Lowey was born in the Bronx, while Granger was born in Greenville, Texas — a rural town with a population of 27,000. Both made their way up in local politics, with Lowey working as a top aide to the New York secretary of state and Granger serving on Fort Worth’s zoning commission, city council and as its mayor before moving to the U.S. House, becoming the first Republican woman to represent Texas in that chamber.

Lowey’s stance on most issues is left-of-center, as is much of her district, which includes well-educated suburbs north of New York City, including Rockland and parts of Westchester counties. She won her last re-election with 88 percent of the vote.

Granger’s district, which includes much of Western Fort Worth, is a solidly Republican area that re-elected her in 2018 with 64 percent of the vote. Both women are party loyalists, with Lowey voting alongside Democrats 97 percent of the time and Granger voting with the GOP 98 percent of the time, according to CQ vote studies.

But they both know they have to work together to conclude the unwieldy appropriations process unfolding over the rest of this year, and somehow avoid another shutdown when the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

During that time, a Democratic House, a Republican Senate and President Donald Trump will not only have to agree how much to spend, but how to divide up what will likely be more than $1.3 trillion between 12 spending bills.

There will be dozens of thorny policy issues along the way, ranging in scope from which organizations can receive family planning grants to how much funding should be allocated to research gun violence to the number of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention beds.

At the center of speculation about a fiscal 2020 shutdown will be the $8.6 billion the White House has asked lawmakers to give the departments of Defense and Homeland Security for border barrier construction, a sum Democrats are unlikely to agree to.

Tensions could also flare if appropriators, who covet their constitutional power of the purse, insert language into the final spending bills to prevent the administration from diverting billions of dollars from other accounts to border barrier construction.

On top of all that, the 2020 presidential campaign is already taking center stage on cable networks and Twitter feeds — increasing the odds that Trump will want something big to show his supporters in what could be the last batch of spending bills approved before voters head to the polls. And as Trump showed earlier this year, he doesn’t feel the same type of pressure to avoid shutdowns as lawmakers do.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 30: House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., left, and ranking member Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, are interviewed by CQ Roll Call in the Capitol on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
One was born in the Bronx, while the other hails from Texas. But Lowey and Granger have more in common than meets the eye. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Leave us alone

For the moment, Lowey hopes that appropriators are left alone to do their work.

Their seniority on the panel and goodwill among colleagues led Lowey to become the first Appropriations chairwoman in House history, and Granger to become the first Republican woman ever to hold the title of ranking member in January.

Next week, they will walk into the first full committee markup of the fiscal 2020 process, after which they’ll be advocating their party’s position on the House floor before the Fourth of July.

Lowey hopes they’ll both be supporting the bills.

“They are good bills, so my hope is that as they proceed they will get bipartisan support,” she said. “We won’t agree on everything, but I hope there will be good, strong support for the issues that really matter to working families in this country.”

Granger seems less optimistic the House GOP will be able to support the spending bills, in part because Congress and the White House have not yet agreed to a total spending level.

House Democrats are instead writing their bills to total $733 billion for defense and around $647 billion in nondefense discretionary spending, counting add-ons above regular budget caps for the 2020 census, among other items. That’s 2 percent less than Trump wants for military and related programs, while the nondefense piece exceeds Trump’s request by over $100 billion, or 19 percent.

“It’s sort of the cart before the horse,” Granger said. “We’re looking at the bills and they have some very important funding, but still, the top number we’re dealing with is higher than we can have without sequestration,” she said, referring to the automatic across-the-board cuts that would trigger under current law without a spending deal signed by Trump.

“It’s a different way of approaching it that’s going to make it more difficult,” Granger added.

House Republicans attempted something similar in 2017, it should be noted, when they advanced a 12-bill omnibus that September that breached the statutory caps before Congress and the White House reached agreement on actual spending levels. The package was blocked in the Senate, but it served to establish the House’s negotiating position that paved the way for a spending deal several months later.

When fiscal 2020 spending bills reach the House floor, the vote very well could split along party lines the same way it did nearly two years ago. But the bills will eventually reach the conference phase, during which lawmakers work out differences between the parties and the chambers.

Lowey and Granger will play a key role — along with their Senate counterparts, Chairman Richard C. Shelby and ranking member Patrick J. Leahy — in determining the final spending levels and policy that heads to Trump’s desk.

“If you leave some of the outside forces home, Kay Granger and I could work together with Sen. Shelby and Sen. Leahy to come to an agreement, because that’s what government is all about,” Lowey said.

“It’s common sense: When you have a problem in appropriations, it’s not like an authorizing committee where you can debate and debate. We have to bring it to a conclusion,” Lowey added. “There will be some issues where we may not agree, and that’s when it’s nice to be in the majority rather than the minority.”