CHN: Domestic Spending Extended for Six Months; Almost All Flat-Funded

With 24 hours to spare, President Bush signed a continuing resolution extending most domestic spending through March 6, 2009. Unable to agree upon most of the separate appropriations bills, Congress instead passed temporary legislation with almost all spending frozen at this year’s levels. Human needs advocates had worked hard to secure increased funding for a number of vital services, and were successful in persuading Congress to add urgently needed dollars or improving language for certain nutrition, home energy, and housing programs. The legislation, the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act (PL 110-329), also contains full-year appropriations for Defense, Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security, as well as disaster relief to help states cope with hurricanes and flooding. The year-long appropriations for military and homeland security programs each had above-inflation increases: nearly 6.2 percent for Defense, 6.1 percent for Homeland Security, and 14.1 percent for Military Construction/Veterans Affairs. (Legislation text available at .)
Nutrition programs face serious shortfalls because of rising food prices and more people eligible due to recession-induced lost earnings. It was not hard for Congress to see that flat-funding these programs would cause wholesale reductions in the number of people served. So, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program was increased to an annualized $6.658 billion, up from $6.02 billion in FY 2008. House and Senate Appropriations Committees had provided more than $6.7 billion for FY 2009 before giving up and combining all the annual appropriations into one large bill. Nutrition experts believe that the amount provided is adequate to get WIC through the next six months, but estimate that a further increase will be needed if current trends continue. In addition, emergency food packages provided mainly to low-income seniors through the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) will receive an annualized $163.2 million, up from $140 million in FY 2008.

Congress also responded to the huge increases in home energy costs by doubling the funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The $5.1 billion appropriation includes $4.5 billion for the regular formula grants to states (up from $1.98 billion in FY 2008), plus $590 million in emergency contingency funding that can be released as needed by the executive branch (the same level as this year).

Pell grants for low-income college students received an increase of just over $2.5 billion, to $16.761 billion. In addition, language sought by low-income housing advocates was included to ensure that all project-based Section 8 rental units can be renewed.

Other increases in human needs programs were included as part of the bill’s disaster relief section. The Social Services Block Grant was increased by $600 million (for a total of $2.3 billion), with the new funding made available to help states directly affected by natural disasters to provide health and mental health services, as well as to repair or construct health/mental health, child care, and other social service facilities. Also included was $15 million in new funding under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act for the education of children made homeless by natural disasters.

With the recession cutting deeply into family incomes and state revenues, the need for investment in a full range of social and community services is growing. Most of these services have sustained cuts over the past three or more years. Just to list a few examples, from FY 2005 through 2008, adult job training was cut 12 percent and youth training dropped 14 percent. Child care and Head Start were cut 10 and 8 percent, respectively. Adult basic education shrunk by 12 percent, and family violence/battered women’s shelters declined 11 percent. Allowing inflation to cut these programs further at a time of economic crisis holds back the potential for recovery.

When the new Congress takes office in January, it will begin work on finalizing FY 2009’s appropriations levels. Congress can enact higher funding more responsive to the nation’s need, and does not have to wait until early March to do so. Expected continued turmoil in the economy will put pressure on Congress to act as quickly as possible.

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