CHN: Stopgap Spending Bill Passes Congress; Longer Term Not So Certain

With little time to spare, Congress approved spending through November 17 on programs that would otherwise run out of money by September 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.  Congress inserted this “continuing resolution” (CR) on September 29 into the Defense appropriations bill to prevent funds from drying up for the 10 program areas without completed spending bills.  Only Defense and Homeland Security appropriations were passed before Congress left for its pre-election recess.
The temporary spending provisions allow 7 weeks of operations either at the current rate of spending or at the level in either House- or Senate-passed appropriations bills, whichever is lower.   The Senate has not passed any appropriations bills besides Defense and Homeland Security; the House has approved all but Labor-HHS-Education.  Therefore, if the House has reduced spending below current year amounts in any of its appropriations bills, that lower rate will apply through November 17.  In the case of Labor-HHS-Education programs, spending will continue at current rates.

As a result, all programs will shrink at least by inflation.  The National Head Start Association has estimated that a year of level funding will mean 19,000 fewer children in Head Start.  Federal funds provide child care for 250,000 fewer children now than in FY2000, because child care assistance has been level-funded for years.  While a temporary period of level funding followed by adequate appropriations for the rest of the year would not necessarily be too harmful, the rest of the year is in considerable doubt.

Since Congress will be out until the week of November 13, it is unlikely that it will complete work on all the unfinished appropriations bills by the new November 17 deadline.  Most likely, another short-term bill will be passed, with little clarity about what will follow.  Many are predicting that Congress will roll all the remaining appropriations together into one big bill (called an “omnibus” appropriations bill).  The House and Senate Chairs of the Appropriations Committees (Senator Cochran, R-MS, and Representative Lewis, R-CA), have both expressed a desire to enact each appropriations bill separately, but time and political pressures may make that unlikely.

Advocates dread omnibus appropriations bills because it is very hard to defend individual programs, especially those serving vulnerable people, when so much is being negotiated all at once.  Nevertheless, the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities (ECAP) and many other human needs advocates are gearing up to fight for adequate funding for critical priorities.

More for Defense; Less for Human Needs.  In response to a veto threat by the President, Defense appropriations negotiators rejected the Senate’s version, which cut Defense funding more deeply in order to funnel $5 billion more than the House Defense plan to health, education, social services, and other domestic programs.  Instead, final Defense appropriations agreed to the House version.  That broke promises to moderates in both the House and Senate who had pressed for more funding for human needs programs.   On the Senate side, Senators Specter (R-PA) and Harkin (D-IA) had led a successful effort to amend the Senate’s budget resolution last March to add $7 billion to education, health, and other services covered by the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill.  The extra $7 billion would restore funding to FY 2005 levels, undoing many cuts made in FY 2006.  But no final budget resolution ever passed, leaving House and Senate leadership free to impose stingier appropriations totals.  In the Senate, even though Defense was cut more deeply to make room for more Labor-HHS-Ed services, the appropriations total was still $2 billion short of the amount Senators Specter and Harkin were seeking.  Even while the Defense appropriations conferees were making things much worse, the two senators were circulating a letter among their colleagues to tell the leadership they wanted $2 billion more, to get the full $7 billion that 73 senators had voted for in March.  At press time, a bipartisan list of 54 senators had signed, with more being sought.  If 60 senators are willing to vote to increase appropriations totals beyond the current limits after they come back in November, it is possible to prevent cuts (assuming the House also agrees).

House moderates are also circulating a letter seeking more funding for domestic programs.  After the decision on Defense appropriations was made, Rep. Castle (R-DE) was heard on National Public Radio suggesting that additional funds could be made available through across-the-board cuts.  Advocates were startled, because across-the-board cuts in the last several years have along with inflation resulted in shrinking services.  (To see funding for more than 70 programs funded under Labor-HHS-Education, click here).  Taking an across-the-board slice out of annually-appropriated programs to give funding back to some will hurt vulnerable people and further reduce needed services.  It remains true that Congress has the power to keep promises to avoid cuts; but across-the-board reductions are not the way.

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