A Clean Spending Package, or an Ugly Christmas Tree?


December 2, 2015

With Thanksgiving barely over, many Americans turned their attention immediately to Christmas. A less-than-scientific poll (my personal Facebook feed) showed that lots of friends went to their local Christmas tree lot in the days following Thanksgiving and spent time over the weekend hanging lights, ornaments, and garlands on their trees.
With fewer than 10 days remaining before funding for government agencies runs out, some members of Congress are following a similar tradition – trying to hang whatever policy changes they can onto must-pass legislation – Congress’s version of an ugly Christmas tree. In this case, the must-pass legislation is an omnibus spending package incorporating all federal agencies for the rest of the fiscal year. Many of the harmful policy changes (known as ‘riders’ in DC) would not pass as stand-alone legislation, so members of Congress attach them to big bills to get them into law, hoping that the other side cares enough about the overall goal of keeping the government open to swallow some bad choices along the way.

Potential damaging riders that we’re watching could impact areas as diverse as refugees, consumer financial protections, campaign finance, labor protections, the environment and health care; we’ll have more on some of these in the days to come. These riders are harmful enough because of the bad policy changes they enact, but in a partisan arena with a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package on the line, they are also harmful in other ways. If Democrats and the Obama Administration refuse to accept some of the ‘presents’ Republicans are trying to hang on the tree, the dispute could lead to a government shutdown. Alternatively, disagreement over riders could lead to Congress passing a Continuing Resolution (CR), or spending frozen at last year’s lower levels, for the full remainder of FY16. While Congress could pass a full-year CR for all federal agencies, there is some speculation that Congress could also pass a full-year CR for 1 or more spending areas that are more contentious and pass an omnibus for the remaining spending bills. Under this scenario, three spending bills that may go the way of the CR include financial services (due to fights over consumer protections and Wall Street reforms), funding for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education (a spending bill that’s always contentious because of partisan differences), and funding for the Department of the Interior (because of current partisan disputes over environmental regulations).

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, a full-year Continuing Resolution would be highly problematic for many reasons. First, it would lock in harmfully low sequester level spending caps, ignoring the positive steps made in the bipartisan budget deal to eliminate most of these caps. If funding at these levels were to continue for the rest of the fiscal year, many human needs programs would be seriously squeezed. Inflation is eroding the value of flat funding, leaving FY 2016 domestic discretionary programs about $9 billion behind FY 2015 levels. In addition, some programs like veterans’ health care must rise – and other domestic programs will have to be cut more deeply to make up the difference.

In addition, the elections next fall and the shortened legislative calendar that accompanies an election year mean appropriations bills will be even harder to enact next fall. Thus, a one-year CR for FY16 could easily turn into another year-long CR for FY17, locking in sequester caps for even longer. The Obama Administration has said repeatedly that it would veto spending bills for FY16 that lock in sequestration, so a full-year CR could also set the stage for a government shutdown.

Stay tuned to the blog for more on specific riders we’re watching and ways you can take action to tell your Members of Congress to reject a full-year CR, reject harmful riders that are hung onto the omnibus bill, and pass a clean spending package.


Budget and Appropriations