CHN: Appropriations Showdowns Looming – Obama Administration Continues Strong Opposition to House Funding Bills

When the House Appropriations Committee sent the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs and Energy and Water bills to the House floor, the Obama Administration issued veto threats. Not content to wait until appropriations bills are on their way to the floor, the Administration has started to demonstrate its determination to reject sequestration cuts by writing letters to House Appropriations Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) before bills are taken up in full committee.
The letter written by Office of Management and Budget director Shaun Donovan about the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development funding bill underscores the harm the bill would cause by forcing housing program cuts. For example, the House bill not only fails to restore 67,000 rental housing vouchers lost due to the 2013 sequestration cuts, but would also result in the loss of another 28,000 vouchers, leaving the program about 100,000 vouchers behind.

Donovan’s letter also cites cuts to homeless assistance grants (12 percent below the President’s proposed level), which would deny services and housing to 15,000 families or individuals either homeless or at-risk of homelessness. The House bill would support 25,500 fewer units of permanent supportive housing than the President’s proposal. It would also slash lead poisoning prevention by 40 percent below the President’s budget, meaning 3,400 fewer children would be helped.

Low-income housing advocates were furious that the House bill would prohibit the use of income generated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to fund the National Housing Trust Fund. Previous legislation had assigned such proceeds to the NHTF, which will invest in rental housing for low-income tenants. The Transportation-HUD bill instead directs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac funds to the HOME program, which is not targeted to construct housing for the lowest-income households. The President’s budget had directly funded HOME at $1.06 billion, and would have used the Fannie/Freddie income for the Housing Trust Fund. Full committee amendments to restore funding for NHTF by Representatives Lee (D-CA) and Price (D-NC) failed on party-line votes.

The transportation section of the bill rejects expansions in infrastructure spending proposed by the Obama Administration, including the popular state TIGER grants (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery). The House committee bill provides $1 billion less for these grants than the President’s budget.

Another bill approved by a House appropriations subcommittee is Commerce-Justice-Science. Scheduled to see full committee action during the week of May 18, the bill contains massive cuts to juvenile justice programs. Funding was eliminated for Title II Part B formula grants, which provide states with funds used to assist in complying with federal law to protect children in the juvenile justice system. Title II grants are funded at $55.5 million this year; the Obama budget requested $70 billion for FY 2016. Title V delinquency prevention grants have also been zeroed out, continuing their precipitous decline from $65 million in FY 2010 down to $15 million this year. Funding for juvenile justice programs totaled $423.5 million in FY 2010. This year only $251.5 million was provided. The House subcommittee bill for FY 2016 makes a sizable further reduction, despite small increases in programs such as Youth Mentoring (up $5 million, to $95 million). Missing and Exploited Children services are level-funded at $68 million.

In other Department of Justice funding, the subcommittee bill provides additional funds for 55 more immigration judges and support staff, intended to reduce the worsening backlog in immigration cases. There is also a new $50 million Community Trust initiative, with funding for police body cameras and other measures intended to respond to police violence targeted in African American communities. However, funding for the Legal Services Corporation is reduced.

The full House will take up Legislative Branch appropriations on Tuesday, May 19. This is expected to be the last bill to reach the floor before the Memorial Day recess.

The next bill to be taken up in a House subcommittee is Defense, to be considered on May 19.  Here, as reported previously, sequestration limits are flagrantly violated.  While the capped allocation for Defense is $490.235 billion, the subcommittee bill adds $88.4 billion in the uncapped Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, for a total of $578.6 billion.  While OCO is supposed to be limited to war-related funding, appropriators have been explicit in saying that items unrelated to war and troop withdrawal are being funded.

The Senate has been slower to act on appropriations bills. The first bills to reach the full Appropriations Committee will be Military Construction-VA and Energy-Water. As in the House, these bills provide less controversy than many others. But the partisan divide over overall funding levels is in force in the Senate too. Senate Appropriations Chair Thad Cochran (R-MS) is expected to propose his version of allocations for all 12 appropriations subcommittees (the “302(b)” allocations) during full committee action on May 21. Total funding will stay under the sequestration cap of $1.017 trillion. But the top Appropriations Democrat, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will propose an alternative set of allocations, following the President’s lead by adding about $75 billion over sequester levels.

The End Game. Appropriations have in the past been an area where there has been more bipartisan cooperation, at least for the less polarizing bills like Military Construction- VA. This year appears to be different, with the President, House and Senate Democrats largely unified in seeking to end the sequester caps for domestic as well as defense discretionary funding. Although the House majority can pass bills over Democratic objections, the path to Senate passage is far more uncertain, since 60 votes are needed to approve bills. Even if bills can pass, the President has signaled he will veto them. To avoid a government shutdown, Congressional leaders will have to negotiate with the President on a bargain, similar to the deal enacted for FY’s 2014 and 2015, to exceed sequestration caps.

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