spending limits

Congressional Appropriations in Full Swing, Sort Of, As Deadlines Loom

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

Fiscal deadlines loom again and the congressional appropriations process is moving ahead as the House prepares to vote on 12 measures that defy Trump cuts and include spending increases. The Senate is further behind and no time line is set for a vote to raise the debt limit.

As fiscal deadlines loom, the appropriations process is now in full swing – at least in the House of Representatives.

The end of the current fiscal year is rapidly approaching and lawmakers are scrambling to avoid a breakdown in the appropriations process by reaching an agreement on topline spending levels for the next two years and to raise the debt ceiling.  

House appropriators have approved all 12 annual spending bills, with House leaders aiming to pass them out of the full chamber by the end of June. As expected, House spending legislation largely rebukes the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts and instead outlines large spending increases across the federal government. 

To speed up passage, House Democrats were planning to bundle five fiscal 2020 spending bills into a massive package for floor consideration this week. However, that package lost a leg when the Legislative Branch measure was dropped after a disagreement over a provision to raise lawmaker salaries. The House began debate today on the revised four bill package that combines the fiscal 2020 measures for Defense, Labor-HHS-Education, Energy-Water, and State-Foreign Operations.

The bundling decision underscored a determination by House Democratic leaders to avoid another breakdown in the appropriations process and allow enough time for negotiations with the Senate before the new fiscal year begins October 1. Just as Republicans did last year, the strategy includes combining the two biggest annual spending bills – Defense and Labor-HHS-Education. Congress was able to get those two bills, along with three others, signed into law last year before the start of fiscal 2019. 

But the strategy is hardly a cure-all. A dispute over funding for the border wall last year brought work on other spending bills to a halt and led to the longest partial government shutdown in history. And topline funding levels finalized in the ongoing bipartisan budget negotiations are unlikely to mirror the priorities of House Democrats. 

Without a bicameral budget agreement in place yet, Senate appropriators have yet to mark up any of their spending bills for fiscal 2020. Bipartisan negotiations to set funding levels for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 have stalled primarily over disagreement on the level of domestic spending and whether new spending will be offset by new revenues or cuts elsewhere. An agreement to raise spending limits is necessary to avoid severe cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary spending imposed by a 2011 deficit reduction law.

Senate Republican leaders met Wednesday with the White House in hopes to solidify the party’s spending strategy, but early reports suggest no agreement was reached. Part of that strategy includes deciding whether or not to couple raising the debt limit with must-pass spending legislation. The deadline to lift or suspend the debt limit is fluid, but the Treasury’s borrowing authority can likely last through October before a default.

The bottom line: A breakthrough will need to happen soon to avoid a shutdown or stopgap spending resolution come October. There are just 21 legislative days scheduled before the August recess. After which lawmakers will return to Washington with only 13 scheduled legislative days before the end of the fiscal year on September 30.