No break in appropriations logjam

With Bush and Congress at loggerheads, agencies face an extended budget freeze

Spending standoff

The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill is at the center of a dispute between President Bush and lawmakers about $22 billion in discretionary spending. That measure accounts for almost half the difference between the lawmakers’ and the president’s spending requests, said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

The combined $150.7 billion for those agencies is $9.8 billion over the president’s request “and roughly the cost of one month in Iraq,” Obey said.

The Labor, HHS and Education bill calls for a $6.2 billion, or 4.3 percent, spending increase compared with the previous year. The measure would provide funding for health insurance for more individuals and for community health centers, increase grants to pay for college and provide more support for the No Child Left Behind Act. It would roll back administration cuts to programs for dislocated workers and add funds for job training and placement for young adults.

— Mary Mosquera

Against a backdrop of political gamesmanship, federal agencies still have no budget for fiscal 2008, and policy advisers say prospects don’t look good for a quick resolution to the budget fight.

However, lawmakers have made sure that the government has money to operate while they hash out their differences on spending legislation. House and Senate conferees used the Defense Appropriations bill to extend the current continuing resolution through Dec. 14. Both chambers are expected to pass the conference report for that bill and send it to President Bush. The current continuing resolution, which has kept federal programs operating since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, expires Nov. 14.

Lawmakers have said publicly they hope to complete all appropriations legislation by Dec. 6. “Privately, our hope is that it will be done by Dec. 14,” said Ed Lorenzen, senior policy adviser to House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Bush has threatened to veto most of the spending bills because they exceed his budget request without offering offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.

“The administration has made clear since the beginning of the appropriations process that the president will veto bills that exceed his reasonable and responsible levels for discretionary spending,” White House officials wrote in a Statement of Administration Policy released Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders have interpreted their victory in the 2006 midterm elections to mean that voters want a change in federal priorities, including increased spending on health and education. The House and Senate have passed bills that would exceed the president’s budget request by $22 billion.

Democratic leaders, responding to the president’s veto threat, have lambasted Bush’s request for $200 billion to pay for the war in Iraq.

Two months of war spending easily covers the $22 billion difference between Congress and the president on the budget, said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“He is trying to masquerade as fiscally responsible by manufacturing a fight over what we spend in roughly two months in Iraq,” Obey said.  

Agencies have much riding on this year’s appropriations bills, said Stan Collender, managing director at Qorvis Communications and a federal budget expert.

“They already had to put a lot of plans on hold because of the yearlong [continuing resolution] last fiscal year,” he said.

The government functioned on a continuing resolution in 2007 because Republican leaders at the time did not complete spending bills and the incoming Democratic majority leaders wanted to move to new business. It is too early to know whether Congress will decide to pass omnibus legislation that rolls the various appropriations measures into one bill, Collender said.

For now, it appears that lawmakers want to send the president a few individual bills and see if he fulfills his promise to veto them, he added.

The fight that has been advertised all year hasn’t begun, said Jim Hearn, director of federal programs and the budget process for the Senate Budget Committee’s minority staff. Hearn spoke at a conference last week sponsored by the American Association for Budget and Program Analysis. “Having vetoes is the price of admission to the fight to find out what happens after the veto,” he said.

Other policy advisers agreed that the budget fight is far from over. A veto of the first bill is a necessary precursor to negotiations, Lorenzen said. The endgame is to craft bills the president will sign.

Lorenzen said both sides have political reasons for wanting to say they tried to pass appropriations bills for fiscal 2008.

If the president vetoes bills that Congress can’t override and the president doesn’t want to negotiate, lawmakers can say they tried nd then offer an omnibus bill, Collender said. But “appropriators hate omnibus bills,” he added, and Bush can veto them.

“The president is not running for re-election, and his political incentives are not the same as those of the members of Congress, who might very well get hurt,” Collender said.

“There isn’t anything about the White House veto strategy at this moment that makes a lot of sense,” Collender added.

The president would get a lot more credit if he compromised with congressional leaders to split the difference in the $22 billion that exceeds his original budget request, he said.

Democratic leaders have indicated they are willing to negotiate. But lawmakers say they have not heard from White House officials.

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