CHN: Senate Attempt at Full-Year Appropriations Collapses

Child Care, Head Start, Disabilities, and Housing Programs Likely to Suffer
There was an outside chance that Congress would be able to agree on a full-year appropriations bill during the waning days of its session.  For parents needing help with child care or placing their children in Head Start, the outcome was very important.  These programs are facing a significant loss of funding as the temporary increase provided by economic recovery legislation expires.  An omnibus spending bill proposed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would have mitigated the loss of the temporary funding by increasing child care base dollars by $681 million and Head Start by $840 million over their FY 2010 levels.

But hopes for that were dashed when Senate Republicans who had participated in negotiations for the omnibus spending bill backed away from their initial support.  The omnibus, with individual line items for all annual appropriations, was shelved.  Republicans, who will control the House of Representatives and be more influential in the Senate starting in January, decided to unite around delaying full-year decisions until after the new Congress is seated.

Without the necessary 60 votes to pass the omnibus bill, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Daniel Inouye (D-HI) introduced a short-term continuing resolution (CR) instead, which would fund federal programs through March 4.  The Senate took up this bill on December 21, the day that the previous stop-gap spending bill was to expire.  The Senate voted for the temporary spending measure (a Senate amendment to H.R. 3082) by a convincing vote of 79-16, and sent it to the House for final enactment.  In the evening, the House obliged, with a vote of 193-165, sending it to the President for his signature and preventing a government shutdown.   House Members used this final debate as an opportunity to celebrate the historic career of David Obey (D-WI), the retiring Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.  Chairman Obey has served in the House since 1969, and is the third longest-serving Member in the House.

The expected House leadership once the new Congress is seated has proposed funding levels substantially below current spending for domestic programs including housing, education/training, children’s services, public health, home energy assistance, and much more.  They will get the chance to propose spending cuts when Congress has to extend funding before the March 4 deadline.

In this year of logjam, Congress had not enacted any of the dozen separate appropriations bills in time for the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1.  Instead, they passed temporary continuing resolutions.  That left three options for closing out the year:  (1) passing an omnibus bill, with complete funding decisions for each program; (2) passing another continuing resolution through the end of the fiscal year, with programs flat-funded except for a small number of programs where flat-funding would have bad consequences unacceptable to Congress; and (3) passing a short-term continuing resolution.  By taking the third option, Congress has greatly increased the likelihood of significant cuts in human needs programs.

All of the spending proposals being floated in Congress are lower than President Obama’s FY 2011 budget plan.  Here is a rough summary of appropriations totals (both domestic and military/international) in the proposals Congress has considered or will in the near future:

                        President’s FY 2011 budget: $1.137T
Senate omnibus bill:                $1.108T
House full-year CR:                 $1.089T
Senate CR till March 4
(at full-year rate):                    $1.091T
Boehner proposal (expected
new House Speaker):            $1.029T

The Boehner proposal is $62 billion less than the annualized rate of spending in the short-term continuing resolution, and about $108 billion less than the President’s earlier proposal.  Even worse, the Boehner plan accepts the President’s funding for military, homeland security, and veterans’ programs, inflicting all the cuts in domestic spending.  An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the Boehner plan will require an immediate 21 percent across-the-board cut in domestic programs, “the deepest cut for these programs from one year to the next in recent U.S. history.”

The short-term continuing resolution just enacted includes a few increases beyond level-funding.  For example, the bill makes up a $5.7 billion shortfall in funding for Pell grants, to ensure that the maximum annual grant per student is not reduced from its current $5,550 amount.  An increase of $460 million was provided for the Veterans Benefits Administration, to keep up with the large number of war-related disability claims.  There are also some proposed increases in military spending.  But the increases in child care and Head Start have been wiped out.  Similarly, the omnibus had funding for 10,000 rental vouchers and other assistance for homeless families and individuals, whose numbers have grown since the housing bust and the recession.  The omnibus provided $830 million in new funds to process disability and retirement claims through the Social Security Administration to prevent long waits due to the rising number of claims.  These modest increases do not appear to be included in the March 4 CR.  Neither is about $1 billion in additional funding for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), much of which would have been used towards implementing the new health care law.  While omitting this funding does not really prohibit the Administration from moving ahead with implementing the law (most of the health care law’s funding is mandatory and not subject to Congressional appropriation), it may slow the process down somewhat.

Because the CR avoids most item-by-item appropriating, it also fails to achieve $10.2 billion in savings from military programs that the omnibus would have cut.  These savings are not therefore available to be invested in other services.

If the new Congress replaces the short-term measure with something like the Boehner plan, it will have to cut domestic spending by more than $100 billion, (the 21 percent mentioned above).  The cuts would apply to programs that have been operating since October 1, and so would be far worse because they could not be spread over a full 12 months.  Cuts of this magnitude will hurt the fragile economic recovery, and will invite strong opposition.  As President Obama charts his course in working with a more hostile Congress, advocates will be looking for his use of every Presidential tool to fight off severe cuts, up to and including veto threats.

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