CHN: Transportation Bill Action this Week; End of Year Deal a Possibility

As October wraps up, there are a number of big legislative items Congress still needs to deal with, including resolving FY16 funding, raising the debt ceiling (see related article in this Human Needs Report for more on this), addressing a package of corporate tax breaks, and the reauthorizing the transportation bill. Lawmakers are expected to pass another short-term extension of the transportation funding bill this week before the current authorization expires on Oct. 29. The stop-gap bill filed in the House on October 23 would keep funds flowing to highway and public transit projects across the country through November 20. Last Thursday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a six-year transportation reauthorization bill (H.R. 3763). However, even if H.R. 3763 were to pass the full House before the Oct. 29 deadline, which is unlikely, the House and Senate would still have to work out the differences between the House bill and the six-year reauthorization bill (H.R. 22) the Senate passed on July 30. The House and Senate agreed on the current three month stop-gap legislation in late July (for more on this, see the August 3 Human Needs Report).
At this point, neither the House nor the Senate transportation bill is fully paid for. The Senate bill includes roughly $50 billion of offsets; however, advocates are concerned that these same offsets are needed to pay for sequester relief. Using these offsets to help pay for the transportation bill would leave human needs programs in the lurch, as many conservative members of Congress have insisted on paying for any spending increases to such programs with offsetting cuts, and this could lead to cuts to some human needs programs to pay for increases to others. There is also the possibility that instead of passing a stand-alone transportation bill, it could get rolled into a larger year-end deal that would include FY16 funding and what has become an annual process of extending a package of approximately 50 mostly corporate tax breaks (which are not paid for with corresponding offsets). Many Republican members of Congress want to see many of these tax breaks made permanent. Many human needs advocates oppose making them permanent without paying for these tax breaks with other revenue increases, since they cost hundreds of billions of dollars.  But they are emphatic that no corporate tax breaks be made permanent without also making permanent improvements to the low-income Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit that are set to expire in 2017.

There is also grave concern that a year-end deal could see Congress pass a Continuing Resolution (CR), or stop-gap spending measure, for the full remainder of FY16. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, a full-year Continuing Resolution would be highly problematic for many reasons. First, it would lock in harmfully low sequester level spending caps, taking money away from critical human needs programs (for background on sequestration, see the related debt ceiling article in this Human Needs Report). If the sequester cuts remain in place, domestic appropriations will have been cut 17 percent since FY10, leaving them the lowest as a share of the economy in the last 50 years. While a one-year CR would fail to protect non-defense programs from additional cuts, because of extra funding provided to the Pentagon via the Oversees Contingency Operations (OCO) account, it would violate the principle that sequestration relief be provided equally to both defense and non-defense programs. As a significant portion of funding covered by annual appropriations goes to state and local governments, a full-year CR at the sequester levels would also have a significant impact on state budgets.

In addition, the elections next fall and the shortened legislative calendar that accompanies an election year mean appropriations bills will be even harder to enact next fall. Thus, a one-year CR for FY16 could easily turn into another year-long CR for FY17, locking in sequester caps for even longer. The Obama Administration has said repeatedly that it would veto spending bills for FY16 that lock in sequestration, which could set the stage for a government shutdown when the current CR expires December 11.

In addition, the House is also expected to elect current Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as the next Speaker of the House this Thursday. Rep. Ryan said he will respect the so-called “Hastert Rule,” which requires that at least half of Republicans support legislation for it to move to the floor. Advocates have expressed concern that this will make it harder to pass bipartisan legislation since the House’s most conservative members are not likely to support legislation that would also attract Democratic support.

The Coalition on Human Needs’ Executive Director Deborah Weinstein discussed the need to end the sequester and raise the spending caps, as well as the need to raise the debt ceiling, when she testified before the Senate Budget Committee last week. Advocates also spread the word about the need to end sequester cuts via a Twitterstorm and a blog carnival. Advocates will need to remain alert and ready to act throughout the fall to ensure that human needs programs are not cut further for the most vulnerable populations as deadlines, partisan standoffs, uncertainties and threats of additional cuts loom in Congress.


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