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Tag Archives: Appropriations

“Rumors” is a bar in Washington, D.C.  (Never been there.)  Rumors are also all we have to go on in anticipating a deal coming out of the budget-resolution negotiations this month.

The rumor is that a deal is relatively close, but still not in hand.  That makes life a bit tricky for those outside the room.  Virtually the entire purpose of this negotiation is to settle upon a number for the total annual appropriations – a so-called “302(a) allocation” – for the ongoing fiscal year (2014).  This is small ball, not a grand bargain.  By the ideal-world calendar, the appropriators would have received that total number on April 15, and that entire process would have been finished on September 30,.  So now, instead of the appropriators receiving their target five and one half months before the fiscal year, they are waiting for the number two and one half months into the fiscal year.  (No pressure, guys.)

Why is that a problem?  The toughest annual appropriations decisions are those over the last few dollars.  And it is virtually impossible even to prepare for those decisions if you do not know even to a close-enough-for-jazz tolerance how many last few dollars there are going to be.

But beyond that point, the appropriators’ ambition this year was to do legislation a little more tailored than a last-year-plus-or-minus-X-percent across-the-board full-year continuing resolution (CR), which has been the highly unfortunate recent pattern.  Even those most viscerally opposed to government as an institution should reject that approach, and instead want appropriations laws that dig much deeper – that perform “oversight” to weed out and disproportionately cut or repeal the least-cost-effective programs.

At least to take a crack at such meaningful legislation, the appropriators asked for their 302(a) allocation to be determined by about a week ago.  Without that number in hand, and with the current CR expiring on January 15, the chances of further short-term CRs and still-later final appropriations legislation are increasing by the minute.  And the shorter the duration of any real appropriations legislation, the less the potential beneficial impact of any well-chosen adjustments, the harder for well-meaning executive branch managers to do their jobs, and the more-abrupt any changes of appropriations levels need to be to hit an annual total much different from the annual rate of the initial part-year CR.

But it is not dreadfully surprising that the budget-resolution negotiators are having a hard time delivering their final numbers.  The substantive preferences of the House and the Senate have little in common.  And especially in the House, but even in the Senate, there is considerable diversity of opinion within the majority.  A deal cut by the House majority’s negotiator could be rejected by his own caucus and so rendered null, void, and an enormous waste of time and loss of face.  Therefore, the negotiation entails frequent consultations with the leaderships and at least indirectly with the full caucuses, which itself takes a lot of time.

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It seems we’ve stood and talked like this before…  The federal government approaches the beginning of the next fiscal year, and the shutdown crisis starts as if by clockwork.  But this time, something is different.  This time, the Congress has passed no appropriations bills at all.  Usually, at least the Pentagon and the Congress itself have been funded.

It brings back such memories.  In 1995 and 1996, the Congress (led by then-Senator Bob Dole (R-KN) and then-Representative Newt Gingrich (R-GA)) could not agree on appropriations (and a lot of other things) with then-President Bill Clinton (D).  The Congress did manage to pass the easy bills that year.  They funded themselves.  They funded the Pentagon.  They funded the Departments of Agriculture and Energy, and their transportation and water projects.  They also funded the Treasury (convenient, because by the time the drama had ended, the Treasury had had an enormous amount of work to do).  But the rest of the government – the Departments of Commerce, Justice, State, Interior, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, and the District of Columbia – went into the fiscal year without appropriations.

All of those agencies were shut down for five business days in November, and then again for 21 business days from December into January – this second episode, considering weekends and holidays, lasting for more than a calendar month.

The standout practical lessons from that time are pertinent today.  For one thing, there is statute and legal opinion regarding what an agency can and cannot do when unfunded.  You have heard about “essential” personnel.  The law does not use that term in this connection.  Rather, it states that employees may not report for work (no volunteers, no good Samaritans, no workaholics) unless their work is pertinent to “emergencies involving the safety of human life or protection of property,” in which case they are “excepted” from the general ban.  These excepted employees are perhaps the major category who would report for work even in the absence of appropriations.

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The federal government’s fiscal year 2013 ends and its fiscal year 2014 begins on September 30 and October 1, two months from now.  According to the official calendar of the House of Representatives, that body leaves for its August break today, and will have only nine legislative days in September before the fiscal year ends.

That is one of the most tangible reasons why long-time Washington observers worry about a possible government shutdown – the failure to enact appropriations for the various federal agencies.

A second evident reason is that the Congress has made virtually no progress in passing the necessary appropriations, even as it packs its bags to take the August break.  Highlighting that failure is the withdrawal from the House floor of the appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development – known in the trade by its mellifluous acronym, THUD.

By jealously guarded prerogative, the House passes all appropriations bills first.  Of its 12 bills, the House thus far has passed four.  All four of those bills were “gimmees” (using the golf terminology – as in “I can’t possibly miss, so gimmee that putt”).  Three were the bills for defense, veterans, and homeland security.  Their can’t-miss status arises not only from their vivid red, white and blue color schemes, but also because the House gave those bills the largest allocations of funding relative to past years.  The fourth bill was the Energy and Water appropriations.  It is semi-red, white, and blue, in that it includes funding for the nuclear weapons programs and for the Army Corps of Engineers (which is “Army” in a limited sense), but it is a gimmee also in that with relatively small amounts of money it funds waterway projects that are of intense concern to many geographic areas around the country (including prominently parts of the South that are otherwise “anti-government”).  So it is always easy to pass.  In other words, degree-of-difficulty-adjusted, the House has completed virtually none of its appropriations work.

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Spring has led to summer, which leads to fall, which leads by current custom to another round of “fiscal cliffs.”  There are four that reach a relatively high level of gravity: (1) a run-in with the debt limit, expected between mid-October and mid-November; (2) the expiration of the annual agency appropriations (with a hard deadline of September 30 / October 1); and both (3) pending Medicare reimbursement cuts under the “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) provision, and (4) expirations of several temporary tax cuts, both at the turn of the calendar year.  Beyond those, there is plenty of other remaining unfinished public business (you have read about the conflict over the Farm Bill, for example).

We have talked a fair amount about the debt limit, which carries the greatest potential for damage to the nation’s well-being.  But it is worth providing a bit of additional background on the annual appropriations bills, because they too are looking increasingly fraught as the hours of the Congressional session tick away.  (In contrast, you can bet that the Medicare SGR provision will be de-fused with another “doc fix,” and virtually all of the remaining temporary tax cuts will be extended for yet another round, both more with Kabuki than with true drama.)

For the record, the last instance when the Congress passed all of its appropriations bills on time was September, 1994, for the 1995 fiscal year – so just short of a fifth of a century ago.  Some might by reflex refer to such a Congressional session as “normal,” but clearly, at least by the standard of the frequency of achievement, it was anything but.

In every year since, at least some federal agencies did not have their appropriations on time.  This is in the interest of no one – even those who have a low estimation of the value of government.  Presumably, high on the list of reasons for skepticism about government are inefficiency and waste – and uncertainty about and delays of agency funding clearly add to waste and inefficiency.

Over the last few years, however, with regularly scheduled brinkmanship over agency funding, the end-of-fiscal-year deadlines have become increasingly tense.  And this year, the tension reaches a new high, for several reasons that are worth explaining here.  Let’s look at what the Congress has been up to.

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