CHN: FY21 Appropriations Season Has Started, but the Path Forward is Murky

While most eyes around Washington and the country are focused on COVID-19, congressional appropriations staffers continue to work on Fiscal Year 2021 spending bills. In early April, House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) distributed preliminary top-line spending limits to the 12 House Appropriations Subcommittees that will be used as guidance to draft their respective spending bills. These allocations (known as 302(b) allocations) have not yet been made public. The House Appropriations Committee had previously planned to begin marking up its 12 annual funding bills on April 21, but with Congress away from the Capitol, that did not happen.

One challenge for this year is the limited funding due to topline spending caps enacted as part of the bipartisan budget deal Congress passed last July. In total, Congress will have $10 billion more in FY21 base discretionary dollars to work with than it did in FY20; $5 billion more for defense and $5 billion more for nondefense programs. This total does not include some funding, like some emergency disaster aid and war funding, that Congress approves outside of the caps.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, advocates were concerned that the $5 billion increase for nondefense programs will be entirely consumed by rising costs in veterans’ health care, leading to flat funding or even cuts in other human needs programs. With the need for continued increased funding to respond to the pandemic and resulting economic recession, advocates are seeking to move some of the veterans’ health care services outside the cap, and to add emergency titles to all 12 appropriations bills, which would allow for additional spending outside of the caps. If Congress cannot find more flexibility in domestic funding, it is likely that many programs will suffer severe cuts and many services will further erode.

In April, nearly 400 groups, including the Coalition on Human Needs, urged leading appropriators in Congress to allocate a greater share of funds in fiscal year 2021 to programs controlled by the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. In a letter sent to the Chair and Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, the groups noted that the programs funded by the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee affect health and well-being, child development, educational and skills attainment. Yet these programs largely have been shortchanged in the appropriations process over the last decade.