CHN: Congress Poised to Pass Omnibus Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriation Bill

The House and Senate have agreed to a $915 billion bill (H.R. 2055) that funds the nine remaining appropriations bills covering a wide range of government activities including defense, foreign aid, children’s services, public health, education and training, veterans, the environment, and homeland security.  At press time plans are for the bill to be passed and signed into law by the President on Friday night (December 16), averting a government shutdown when the current continuing resolution (CR) expires at midnight.  Republicans were refusing to pass another CR.  In November Congress passed a bill funding the other three appropriations bill covering programs in agriculture, transportation, housing and science.  The omnibus bill adheres to the $1.043 trillion funding cap for the 12 annual appropriations bills established under the Budget Control Act (PL 112-25) passed in August, a level that is 1.5 percent below the inflation-adjusted funding for the fiscal year that ended September 30.
Most of the bill’s details were agreed to five days ago but Democrats delayed signing off on the bill’s conference report with concerns over several ‘riders’ (policy issues not related to funding) and to give more time for negotiations to work out a deal extending the payroll tax and unemployment insurance and addressing the reimbursement rate for Medicare doctors.  (See related article in this Human Needs Report.)

The largest of the non-defense appropriations bill is the one that funds Labor, Health & Human Services (HHS), and Education programs.  It will provide $156.3 billion for FY 2012, $1.1 billion below the FY 2011 level.  Programs critical to low-income families that received additional funding include the Community Services Block Grant, funded at $714 million, an increase of $12 million above last year’s level, Head Start, funded at $8 billion, up $424 million over last year’s level, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant which receives a $60 million increase to $2.3 billion.

Job Training
The final package rejects the deep cuts proposed to job training and education programs in a House draft of the L-HHS-Ed bill released in October that made $2.2 billion in cuts to training, including $1.9 billion to Workforce Investment Act (WIA) formula grant programs.  The final bill includes $150 million in cuts to job training programs in the Department of Labor (DOL), with the bulk coming from reducing funding for the WIA  Dislocated Worker program ($55 million below FY 2011 level) and the Workforce Innovative Fund ($75 million below FY 2011 levels). The bill does not include the proposal in the House draft to eliminate advance appropriations for DOL training programs, which facilitates longer-term planning.

Pell Grants
The news on Pell Grants is not as bad as some had expected.  The maximum Pell Grant award is maintained at $5,550.  The income threshold at which students automatically qualify for the maximum Pell Grant without a more detailed needs analysis (referred to as the “auto-zero”) has been reduced from a $30,000 limit per year to $23,000, which will make it harder for working students to protect income needed for living expenses.  The lifetime eligibility for Pell Grants was reduced from 18 to 12 semesters.

Low-Income Home Energy Assistance LIHEAP
The LIHEAP program received a deep cut in funding, down from $4.7 billion in FY 2011 to $3.48 billion in FY 2012, a 26 percent reduction.  The President’s budget slashed the program even more deeply, requesting only $2.57 billion for the program.  LIHEAP helps low-income families pay their heating and cooling bills.  Currently only a fraction of those eligible for assistance receive it.  Cuts to this program will be devastating for families struggling to balance the need to put food on the table, pay for medicines, and heat their homes.

H.R. 2005 contains an additional 0.189 percent cut to all discretionary accounts.  The House and Senate will also vote on a separate bill, the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2012 (H.R. 3672), which provides $8.6 billion in disaster aid financing.  Republicans want to pay for the aid with another across-the-board cut to most discretionary accounts.  The Senate will likely not adopt the offsetting cut.  By setting up separate votes for the Disaster Relief spending and the offset, the House is allowing the Members to have their chance to show their support for spending cuts to pay for emergency relief, without jeopardizing final enactment of the legislation.

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