CHN: Senate Committee Passes FY 2008 Budget
More Progress Needed in Human Needs Funding
The Senate Budget Committee approved its budget resolution on March 15, with action in the full Senate expected to begin on March 20. Advocates have been bringing three basic budget concerns to Congress: (1) the need for a substantial funding increase for domestic appropriations; (2) the need to leave room for improvements in vital entitlement programs; and (3) the need to put a brake on unaffordable and unfair tax cuts. The Budget Committee’s response to those concerns was mixed. Their resolution will leave many domestic needs unmet, but leaves room for progress in children’s health and child care and includes budget rules to make it much harder to pass tax cuts that are not paid for.
Appropriations: The budget provides $948.8 billion for 2008 appropriations (so-called “discretionary” spending). Of that, $410.7 billion is for domestic programs; the rest is for military and international spending. The budget also includes $2 billion in advance funding for education programs in 2009. The budget is only $7.3 billion higher than current year domestic spending, adjusting for inflation. Advocates have been seeking $450 billion in domestic appropriations for 2008.
The budget resolution cannot dictate levels of funding for specific programs. But in describing the rationale for the appropriations totals, Chairman Conrad (D-ND) specified a number of assumptions. He rejected the President’s proposals to cut domestic priorities. He listed funding areas the Committee believed deserved increases above inflation. The Committee assumed that various education programs would be increased $4.3 billion beyond this year’s budget adjusted for inflation. They also assumed that the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) would grow by $250 million, and that Community Health Centers would receive an additional $536 million. By education, the Committee meant to include support for preschool (Head Start) through college (financial aid). The Committee also assumed more than $1.3 billion in above-inflation increases to Amtrak, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA. All of these assumptions leave very little over for the rest of domestic programs, despite growing needs for housing, nutrition aid, and mental health, child welfare, elder care, and employment services. Only a little growth in these or other vital services would eat up the rest of the above-inflation increase. After that, if new needs are to be met, they must be paid for with cuts elsewhere. Advocates are continuing to work for an increase in domestic appropriations to address pressing unmet needs. While work continues in the Senate, much attention is now focused on the House Budget Committee.
Entitlements: The Committee included rules that require any increases in entitlement funding or tax cuts to be paid for, either by offsetting program cuts or revenue increases. The Budget Resolution does not specify how to pay for program expansions, but it can leave room for them by creating “deficit neutral reserve funds.” These reserve funds allow for later agreements to pay for spending increases in one committee with revenue increases or program cuts within another committee’s jurisdiction. The budget created a number of these reserves. Of particular importance to children’s advocates, the Committee set aside $35 billion in a reserve fund to allow coverage of more eligible but currently unserved children in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). This would be added to $15 billion assumed to be available for SCHIP funding, for a total of $50 billion over five years. The President’s budget only provided a woefully inadequate $5.5 billion over five years.
The Senate budget also provided a $15 billion reserve for funding increases assumed when the farm bill is reauthorized this year. The farm bill includes the Food Stamp Program, and advocates have been pressing for improvements that would increase benefits and extend eligibility. The budget resolution barely mentions nutrition assistance, while emphasizing farm aid and energy measures. Efforts are continuing to ensure that Food Stamps are a priority during consideration of the farm bill.
The budget does not include a reserve or otherwise mention child support, despite a strong effort by states and low-income advocates to restore funding to collect the support owed to children and their families. Enforcement funding was cut in 2006; if funding is not restored, it is estimated that $11 billion will go uncollected over 10 years. (For more information go to, http://www.chn.org/pdf/2007/senatebudget.pdf )
A number of amendments added reserve funds to make it possible for Congress to enact increases later. Senator Sanders (D-VT) succeeded in one amendment to add $5 billion for child care over five years, and another to add funding for veterans’ benefits. Senator Domenici (R-NM) offered a successful amendment to create a reserve to create parity between mental health and other health insurance benefits. Senator Cornyn (R-TX)’s amendment for a reserve fund for comprehensive immigration reform succeeded as well. The reserve funds approved do not provide a source of funding for the programs. They merely allow further action to expand services like SCHIP, Food Stamps, or child care if a way is found to pay for the increased costs. In the budget resolution, living to fight another day is as much victory as entitlement programs can expect.
The Senate Budget Committee approved its budget on a straight party line vote, 12 to 11. A simple majority is enough to pass the resolution on the Senate floor, but every Democrat will be needed if the voting continues to be along partisan lines. Amendments are expected from conservative senators to limit the improvements now included in the resolution, or to make tax cuts easier to enact. Advocates will have to fight to support the positive elements in the budget and to prevent damaging amendments.
See summary of Senate Budget Committee budget: http://www.chn.org/pdf/2007/senatebudget.pdf