CHN: FY21 Spending Bills Set to Move in the House, but Are Stalled in the Senate

The House is gearing up for several weeks of quick action on Fiscal Year 2021 spending bills, expected to start next week. According to a schedule released by House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY), House Appropriations Subcommittees will take up the spending bills in their jurisdiction starting July 6, with the full committee starting to take up the bills on July 9. Also on the 9th, the committee will approve the topline spending limit for each of the 12 required spending bills, known as 302(b) allocations; these allocations have not yet been made public. The stated goal is to have five spending bills passed by the full House Appropriations Committee by July 10 and the other seven bills passed by the committee by July 16. The full House could then take up and vote on the bills the last two weeks of July, with the goal being to pass all 12 before lawmakers begin the August recess.

Reports are that the House spending bills will include provisions dealing with issues such as additional funding for the federal COVID-19 response and policies that address policing reform, though it’s not yet known how these provisions will differ from provisions in the HEROES Act or the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed by the House (for more on the policing bill, see the related article in this Human Needs Report). The House spending bills are expected to pass largely along party lines.

Appropriations work in the Senate, however, has come to a standstill before things even really got going. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) and the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT), failed to reach an agreement about the types of amendments that could be offered to the spending bills, putting an indefinite pause on spending work in the upper chamber. Similar to action in the House, Senate Democrats want to be able to offer amendments that would provide additional money for COVID-19 responses, as well as policies that address policing reform and other social justice issues; Sen. Shelby does not want to allow these types of amendments. It is highly unlikely that the Senate will take up the bills the House passes, either.

In addition to the amendment impasse in the Senate, another 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. These programs largely have been shortchanged in the appropriations process over the last decade.

Most believe that an impasse on spending bills will lead to Congress being forced to pass a stop-gap spending bill, known as a Continuing Resolution or CR, to keep the government running once the new fiscal year begins on October 1. A CR would fund government programs at FY20 levels; Congress can include ‘anomalies,’ or adjustments to funding levels, for select programs if they can agree upon them. Many believe a CR will last until after the November elections; the outcome of the elections may determine whether FY21 spending bills are passed in the lame duck session in December or a CR is extended into January.

FY21 appropriations