Appropriations bills in limbo

Administration threatens to veto several bills because they would exceed spending limits

Departments operating under a continuing resolution in fiscal 2007 will likely continue to do so in fiscal 2008, as a fight between Congress and the White House over spending limits intensifies. The Senate has approved only one appropriations bill, and its Appropriations Committee has not yet approved the Defense Appropriations Bill. The House passed all 12 appropriations bills before the August congressional recess.

Meanwhile, White House officials have issued another veto threat. Officials threatened to veto the Military Construction- Veterans Affairs bill if it exceeds President Bush’s $933 billion funding request for VA without offsetting cuts elsewhere.

White House officials previously threatened to send other spending bills back to Congress without a signature if they exceeded the president’s spending caps.

“The administration has asked that Congress demonstrate a path to live within the president’s top line and cover the excess spending in this bill through reductions elsewhere, while ensuring the Department of Defense has the resources necessary to accomplish its mission,” the Bush administration has said in several Statements of Administration Policy.

Based on how far delayed most funding bills are in the process, political observers say, the true test of the president’s veto threats might not occur until the new fiscal year begins. The Senate has yet to consider 10 of the 12 appropriations bills.

“We’re moving forward,” said Jenny Thalheimer, Senate Appropriations Committee spokeswoman. The committee is scheduled to mark up the Defense Appropriations Act this week.

The committee has not projected the exact number of bills it expects to pass before Sept. 30, Thalheimer said, and at this point, members are not drafting a continuing resolution. The committee has not negotiated with White House officials on any of the appropriations bills, she added.

The president said last week he is concerned that Congress has sent no appropriations bills to him. “We must work together quickly to get the people’s work done on time,” Bush said.

Paul Wohlleben, former government official and now a partner at Grant Thornton, said it is a safe bet that civilian agencies can anticipate a continuing resolution when they start the new fiscal year. Most agencies are expecting it, he said. “We’re resigned to the fact that this is a way of doing business,” Wohlleben said. “It seems to be the norm.”

For the past few years, federal agencies have not started the new fiscal year with an operating budget. Fiscal 2007, however, might have been among the worst, Wohlleben said. The previous Congress essentially threw up its hands and left the appropriations bills on the table, setting a precedent and making it easier to do again, he said.

Agencies operating under a continuing resolution have a couple of options, said Brian Riedl, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Federal agencies should do what families do every day: set priorities and make trade-offs.”

Congress, however, did deal with two priorities in fiscal 2007 by passing the Homeland Security and the Defense appropriations bills. This year is shaping up to be the same, Wohlleben said. Both the House and Senate have passed the Homeland Security appropriations bill.

White House officials could face an additional leadership challenge in the midst of the appropriations process. The Senate didn’t confirm Jim Nussle as OMB director until Sept. 4,more than a month after former OMB Director Robert Portman’s last day on the job. Nussle, whose role is to be the top budget advocate for the White House, came late to the negotiations process.

However, Nussle, a former House Budget Committee chairman, has a strong history of working with budgets and Congress, policy observers say. In a statement, Nussle said, the government needs “to hold the line on spending to maintain a pro-growth, low-tax environment that allows American workers to keep more of their hard-earned money.”

Click here to enlarge chart (.pdf).


About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.


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