The federal appropriations process may at its most convoluted point ever. A case in point: The Interior Appropriations bill was pulled from consideration by the leadership of Congress on July 9. That’s the spending bill that includes funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.
Why? The debate wasn’t about money — even though that is an issue — but because some Southern Representatives are keen on protecting the Confederate Flag from being banned on federal land.
At the same moment when South Carolina was debating, and then lowering the battle flag from state grounds, Democrats successfully included language to remove the flag from federal facilities including National Parks. Republican leaders (no doubt seeing their fellow legislators at work) quickly agreed and the measure passed on a voice vote.
That should have been the end of the story. There isn’t a lot of support anywhere for the Confederate Flag these days.
Except in Congress.
Roll Call reported that “a number” of Southern Republicans demanded that leadership reverse that flag measure and were more than willing to cast no votes against Interior Appropriations — and possibly all 12 spending bills.
Who would ever have thought the Confederate Flag could be the controversy that stops spending on federal Indian programs? What’s next, a resolution on the Washington NFL team interrupting agricultural programs? Seriously this is messed up but it’s a good example of how dysfunctional the Congress is right now.
The U.S. Congress works best in a framework of two parties: Federalists challenging the Anti-federalists; Whigs against the Democrat-Republicans; and, mostly, Democrats versus Republicans. But now Congress is really three distinct parties: Democrats, Republicans and the Tea Party. This has happened before with the rise of the Radical Republicans around the Civil War. It was chaos then — and now.
A three-way split in the House means that Speaker John Boehner has essentially two choices. He can accept the Tea Party ideas as mainstream ones or he can produce legislation (and especially a budget) that’s centrist enough to win Democratic votes. The speaker’s goal is 218 votes — an impossible number when Republicans are divided.
That’s why Tea Party support for the Confederate Flag is not easy to dismiss because the rest of the budget is so radical that it cannot pass without that faction’s support.
As Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Talking Points Memo: “What it means is he has to accommodate people he would really rather not accommodate. And what happened in this case of course he didn’t have the votes and several southern Republicans basically said, ‘You want our votes? You’re going to have to do something on the Confederate flag.’”
Then the prospect for this year’s Appropriations bills was already risky before last week’s blow up. The Obama Administration has been pressing Congress for a broader spending package that would lift the strict spending caps that are in place because of the four-year-old Budget Control Act. And Congress has pushed back by loading up the now stalled appropriations bills with poison pills, such as prohibitions that limit federal agencies from doing their jobs. (Read this: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)
But federal spending will have to wait until the flag issue is resolved on Capitol Hill. As Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said last week, “When I was marching a across that bridge in Selma in 1965, I saw some of the law officers, sheriff’s deputies, waring on their helmet the Confederate flag. I don’t want to go back, and as a country, we cannot go back.”
Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.