CHN: Crunch Time: Vetoes Threaten Top Human Needs Priorities as Sept. 30 Deadline Approaches
September 30 is the last day of the federal fiscal year. It is also the day all annual appropriations expire, including funding for education, housing and energy assistance, and a vast array of health, nutrition, social and community services. If that weren’t enough, by that date Congress must also act to extend longstanding farm and nutrition programs, including Food Stamps, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
The logjam is made more difficult by the President’s multiple threats to veto most of the bills headed to crunch time. President Bush wants to keep many domestic programs below current year spending; he would shave $23 billion from Congress’ total. Adding to the pressures, the Senate’s rules give the minority many ways to tie up action. As a consequence, its progress on appropriations has been slow. Although Transportation/HUD passed on the Senate floor September 12 (see article this issue), no other domestic appropriations bills have been completed in the Senate. The House has approved all its spending bills.
With two weeks to go, most observers are predicting temporary extensions for most if not all of this legislation to get past the September 30 deadline. Congressional leaders and advocates are making a major push to complete the SCHIP bill, but resolving the differences between the House and Senate legislation may delay final passage here too. The Senate has started to move on the Farm Bill (see article this issue), but it is unlikely to come to agreement with the House by the deadline on this bill either.
The struggle over appropriations poses a major threat to the modest progress in the House and/or Senate bills so far. Some are predicting an extension (called a “continuing resolution”) of perhaps six weeks while Congress finishes the full-year spending legislation to send to the President. Because the continuing resolution is likely to set spending at this year’s levels, whatever gains exist in the new bills will be stalled. Congress is then likely to enact one omnibus appropriations bill, or perhaps a few “mini-buses,” rather than send the President the dozen separate spending pieces of legislation.
So the President will receive one or more very large bills reflecting priorities significantly different from his. Some examples: the President cuts certain mental health programs by 31 percent below this year’s level, taking inflation into account; the House increases those services by 10 percent. The President eliminates the Community Services Block Grant (providing child care, energy assistance, and other community-based services); the Senate increases it by 4 percent, adjusted for inflation. The President slashes home heating and cooling aid by 19 percent; the House increases it by 20 percent. In program after program – Head Start, education for low-income communities, housing assistance, nutrition for the elderly – Congress does better than the Administration. (For more details: Labor-HHS-Ed: http://www.chn.org/pdf/2007/fy08lhhsedchart.pdf; Housing: http://www.nlihc.org/doc/FY08_BudgetChart.pdf.)
Although the omnibus spending bill(s) will also include defense and veterans’ service levels the President supports, he will almost certainly veto the whole package. To override the veto, both the House and Senate must produce a two-thirds vote. That’s a tall order, but not impossible. Advocates for most if not all annually approved services will have their sights trained on one or two targets. There will be a lot of pressure on Congress to defend the higher levels of spending in the bill(s) they send the President.
If the override fails, Congress will then be engaged with the President in a negotiation that inevitably will reduce spending by cutting services. With many or all programs lumped together, human needs items, especially for the poor and vulnerable, will be at particular risk. Across-the-board cuts, a staple of this sort of negotiation, would continue the damage that services have been experiencing for years.
All of this means that federal crunch time will extend months beyond the fiscal year end. The ability of advocates to mobilize for veto overrides will decide whether human needs priorities make progress or fall behind.