News & Insights
Breaking Through When Dysfunction Dominates
It’s a Washington ritual as reliable as the Christmas tree lighting on the Capitol lawn: the feverish, last-minute negotiations behind the massive end-of-year omnibus bill. Stretching several thousand pages, these omnibus packages not only cover annual funding for the whole government, they routinely serve as the vehicle for a huge range of unrelated bills. This “ash and trash” (in Congressional appropriators’ internal parlance) can include dozens of bills, some with policy or budget consequences worth hundreds of billions of dollars, swept into law as part of the must-pass funding.
This year is different.
New Speaker Mike Johnson put forward a “Laddered Continuing Resolution (CR),” approved by the House last night, which will scramble the end-of-year omnibus routine in favor of an unusual two-part CR extending into January and February 2024.
It’s the latest twist in a chaotic Congressional landscape that is disrupting once reliable legislative rhythms – and camouflaging tectonic policy shifts taking place underneath the siren headlines.
1. Punting to 2024 makes budget dealmaking harder – The whole modern appropriations process has run aground because it is easier for both sides to stall than to make the concessions needed to close a deal. Leaders of both parties understand that the “jet fumes” of holiday travel are critical for wearing down holdouts and wrapping up negotiations, instead of just kicking the can down the road again. And again. And again.
Buying more time to reach agreement after the New Year just delays the same painful but inevitable decisions. Before negotiations on the individual bills move forward, Speaker Johnson will have to renew a topline funding agreement with the Senate – undoubtedly with concessions that anger his hard-right Members. The calendar will also work against GOP leadership on some of the more difficult bills, such as the Commerce, Justice and Science funding bill, where GOP pressure to defund the Justice Department will intensify closer to former President Trump’s March federal court date.
Bipartisan dealmaking is still alive and well among Senate appropriators, but they have not been able to move bills fast enough to jam the House. By the time the second package of bills expires on February 2 – coincidentally Groundhog Day – Democrats may face the same decision of whether to enable another short-term CR. The last real backstop is the looming threat of the automatic across-the-board one percent cut from the debt ceiling deal taking effect April 30.
2. Focus shifts to the Israel/Ukraine/Border package – With the appropriations battle postponed to 2024, the urgency will shift to the supplemental funding package for Israel, Ukraine and securing the southern border.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate insist that “serious” border security measures and additional dollars should accompany Ukraine funding. While progressives will object, this is a price that the White House and Democratic leadership may be happy to pay.
The situation at the border and the media portrayal of a migrant crisis in places like New York City puts increasing media and political pressure on Democrats. Recent history shows it is extremely difficult to reach bipartisan agreement on immigration issues. But while the devil is in the details, President Biden and congressional Democrats – many already focused on very competitive races – may see political upside if they can clinch a border security deal ahead of the election year.
3. Ash & trash just piles up – No omnibus? That’s one less vehicle for expiring bills to catch a ride on before the end of the year. But there is still a lengthy to-do list like investing in aviation safety and airport improvements, extending a pay raise for federal firefighters, and the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. Lawmakers are also always discussing a possible tax package this time of year. The end-of-year Christmas tree bill may have a few less ornaments this year, but deadlines spur action so expect the end of the year to produce a slimmed down package.
4. 2025’s battles are being won or lost right now – The chaos around keeping the government open may dominate Congressional coverage on cable news and in national newspapers, but underneath the headlines policy consensus is forming or eroding in areas with immense impact. While the path off the floor of the GOP House is uncertain for any bill in 2024, in low-profile discussions this Congress, policymakers are hammering out many of the most consequential policies we may see in 2025.
From the fresh appetite for deficit reduction to the battle lines across the entire federal tax code being drawn up ahead of the titanic negotiations that will happen when the Trump Tax Cuts expire in 2025, to the Artificial Intelligence forums Leader Schumer has organized to educate Senators, to the sprawling health care policy package the Senate Finance committee passed unanimously with little fanfare at the beginning of November, to the still simmering debates around the shape of crypto regulation or data privacy legislation – lawmakers, regulators and the general public determine their opinions on critical emerging issues long before a bill ever moves to the floor.
Breaking through amid the mainstream press’s focus on dysfunction and drama requires public affairs campaigns with greater sophistication, agility and strategic clarity:
Keep pace with the conversation – The rapid pace of news can leave old talking points out-of-date and out-of-touch. If you aren’t adapting your messaging to the emerging political realities or the latest debate, you risk losing control of the conversation. Keep the narrative on your terms, and keep key policymakers hearing your framing instead of the opposition.
Refine your channels – Government funding drama, world affairs and the presidential race may dominate the headlines and the cable news shows, but decision makers in Congress and the Administration don’t stop working on your issues. Be strategic about the channels you’re pursuing to put your message and your priorities in front of policymakers; from specialty policy outlets, to the local news their constituents follow, to targeted paid media that draws eyeballs amid the drama.
Grow your coalition now – With the gales of change blowing, and a wave of retirements thinning the ranks of many familiar voices in Congress, you can’t afford to let your coalition stagnate. Strategic engagement with a widening circle of potential allies is a critical hedge against the uncertainty of the coming months and years.
Set the table – Use this time to build background relationships with reporters to shape their understanding of your issues and position your spokespeople as experts for future stories, test new creative approaches to develop insights to expand quickly later, and consider reserving media placements to prevent being boxed out in the crowded presidential campaign year.
Don’t get caught flat footed by failing to engage effectively and strategically in 2024.
Henry Connelly spent over 12 years on Capitol Hill serving as a top aide to Democratic leadership including as former Speaker Pelosi’s Director of Communications and Director of Speechwriting while she led the House.
Matt Williams recently joined Precision after almost two decades in the U.S. Senate where he was the Staff director for the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, implementing national messaging strategy with the White House and Congressional leadership. Previously he was communications director for U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.