How Pacific Salmon Increased the Odds of a Government Shutdown

A farmed Loch Duart salmon sits on a cutting board. Two GOP senators want to cut funding for salmon restoration efforts from a government-wide spending bill, a flap that nearly stalled an attached 2013 Pentagon appropriations bill. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Pacific Coast salmon. Let’s face it, they’re tasty — no matter if you grill, broil or bake them. But insert these fish into an already controversial federal government spending bill during the Tea Party Era, and you’ve got trouble.

The popular entree item somehow swam into the House’s version of a $982 billion spending bill that would fund the Pentagon and entire federal government from March 28 through Sept. 30. The delicious Pacific salmon weren’t alone, with a list of other items the military does not want added to the House measure, which contains a full-year Pentagon appropriations bill. And that didn’t sit well with Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

“We’re supposed to be cutting spending, yet they’re adding it,” McCain told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “It’s remarkable.”

In a joint statement issued Tuesday evening, the duo pointed to a House-passed provision calling for “$65 million for Pacific Coast salmon restoration for states including Nevada.” The two critics of President Barack Obama even noted the salmon effort was “mocked” by the president in his 2011 State of the Union address. 

Here’s what Obama said in January 2011, saying the federal government needed to be reorganized in order to boost American competitiveness:

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. And I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

On Wednesday morning, a flabbergasted McCain said he is shocked the House is adding special provisions for “salmon” he then paused and added some emphasis, for effect: “salmon!”

The Tuesday flap created quite a stir that moved what both Republicans and Democrats say is a must-pass bill from a fast-moving legislative river and into the frying pan of Washington gridlock. (Yes, like a salmon. Yes, pun intended.)

McCain and Coburn were angry, and pushed to delay floor debate and amendments — and, therefore, a final vote — on the CR. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was angry, too, and saying he had no choice but to file a cloture motion, a move that would put off work on the bill until Thursday.

In an article posted Tuesday evening, I noted:

A frustrated Reid said the Republicans’ move is the continuation of the party’s strategy to keep the chamber mired in a “slow” gear.

The Democratic leader panned the GOP for refusing to abide by the chamber’s historical practice of moving important legislation quickly.

Because it’s highly likely House Republicans will object to parts of the Senate’s version of the CR, Senate leaders wanted to quickly craft and pass their bill. That way, as Reid put it this week, “a quick conference” among House and Senate appropriators could iron out any differences next week, giving both chambers time to avert a government shutdown by passing the compromise bill with days to spare before the current CR expires on March 27.

Then Coburn and McCain sniffed out something fishy. And though cooler heads prevailed by Wednesday morning, allowing the Senate to begin work on its version of the CR, that time line now could be in question.

Let me be the first to dub this the “salmon spectacle.” Whatever one calls it, this episode is the latest example of how the 2010 and 2012 congressional classes of Tea Party aligned GOP lawmakers who came to Washington to zero the federal deficit by dramatically shrinking the government are influencing the behavior of senior Republicans members and leaders. First in the people’s chamber. And now, in the august upper chamber.


Update (Friday, March 14): Sen. McCain and your correspondent have a chat about pursuing the House’s salmon swain.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett