In the early hours of Saturday, February 19, the House of Representatives approved on a near party-line 235-189 vote the government funding bill for the last half of fiscal year 2011. The bill, H.R. 1, would slash roughly $60 billion from the federal budget relative to fiscal year 2010 spending. Three Republicans voted against the bill, two because it did not go far enough in their view, while no Democrats voted for it.
The bill primarily deals with the one-third of total federal government spending that is controlled by the annual appropriations process (so-called discretionary spending). Not included, with only limited exceptions, is mandatory or direct spending that is not subject to appropriations. Also not included is the funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beyond the unprecedented discretionary budget cuts, the bill also attempts to constrain the Obama Administration’s policy priorities on multiple fronts by adding legislative “riders” on an appropriations bill.
Since the start of the fiscal year on October 1, the government has been funded through a series of short-term “continuing resolutions,” with the current one set to expire March 4. With both houses of Congress out of town this week in observance of President’s Day, the Senate will return on February 28 with just four legislative days remaining before the expiration of the current short-term funding bill.
It has long been obvious that a short-term extension of the current short-term appropriation will be necessary for the Senate to take up its version of the bill and then reach a consensus agreement with the House, a process that may prove difficult given how far apart the two bills are expected to be on funding and on policy.
However, the ability to reach quick agreement on a several week extension has been thrown into doubt as a result of House Speaker John Boehner’s drawing a line in the sand last week saying even a very short-term extension bill will itself have to include budget cuts or he will not bring it to the floor of the House. This threat raises the very real possibility of a government shutdown.
The House spent most of last week working its way through hundreds of amendments. Four amendments to defund last year’s health care law all passed by wide margins. The amendments were sponsored by farm district members – Reps. Steve King (R-IA), Denny Rehberg (R-MT), and Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO).
Anti-EPA legislating via the funding bill was also a popular theme for successful House floor amendments. Among the successful legislative riders were ones by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) to prevent implementation of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) watershed pollution abatement plan for the Chesapeake Bay, one by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) to stop implementation of new water quality standards for Florida’s lakes and rivers, one by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-SD) to prevent EPA from changing air quality standards for particulate matter (including dust from farm roads and operations), and one by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) to stop EPA from issuing hazardous waste standards for coal ash.
Climate change mitigation also took its lumps. The underlying bill would already stop EPA from implementing Clean Air Act rules related to climate, while a successful floor amendment by Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) would put a stop to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate service, and another by Rep. Blaine Luetkenmyer (R-MO) would bar US funding for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Ethanol-related riders also took center stage. An amendment by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) prevailed to prohibit federal funding for ethanol storage facilities or blender pumps, and one by Rep. John Sullivan (R-OK) also passed to prevent EPA from implementing its decision to allow the ethanol content of gasoline to increase from 10 to 15 percent. The ease with which these amendments passed (262-158 and 285-136, respectively) might for the first time signal tougher sledding for ethanol subsidies in the future even if, as expected, the Senate refuses to go along.
Mandatory farm bill commodity program funding also got in the act, but with very different results relative to ethanol. An amendment by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) to cap subsidy payments per farm per year at $250,000 failed 185-241, with 51 Republicans in favor and 54 Democrats opposed. An amendment by Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) to stop $150 million a year in payments to Brazil, the result of Brazil’s successful World Trade Organization suit against the US cotton program, went down 183-246.
Floor action did not make major changes to the underlying bill’s cuts to discretionary spending for government agencies. The bill cuts funding at USDA by 22 percent or over $5 billion and funding at EPA by 25 percent or nearly $3 billion.
Our earlier post summarized the bill’s proposed cuts to USDA spending, including terminations of offices in charge of minority and tribal farmers and farmworkers, elimination of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) and the Organic Transitions research program, and reductions of nearly a half billion dollars in rural development programs and agricultural research and extension. Feeding programs also take a toll under the bill’s terms, with the WIC program cut by $747 million and Food for Peace humanitarian food donations down by $687 million.
A House floor amendment sponsored by Reps. DeFazio (D-OR), Holt (D-NJ), and Pingree (D-ME) to restore the full $5 million to the Organic Transitions research program failed 136-296.
While the bill’s primary purview is discretionary funding, one area of mandatory funding that was cut by the bill was farm bill conservation programs, with a half billion dollars in cuts to the 2008 Farm Bill proposed for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program.
Outside of USDA, the bill would terminate the North American Wetlands Conservation Act’s $47 million for wetlands habitat work, eliminate the $90 million in current funding for state and tribal wildlife grants, and reduce the Land and Water Conservation Fund by 90 percent.
Last February, President Obama proposed an FY 11 budget with $1.128 trillion in discretionary appropriations, not counting funding for the two wars. Democratic Senate appropriators are now developing a bill that would freeze discretionary funding at the FY 10 level of $1.087 trillion, or $41 billion below the President’s original request, but nearly $60 billion more than the House bill’s $1.028 trillion. It now seems likely the final bill, if there is one, will include less funding than would be available with a hard freeze. How much lower remains to be seen.
With the President’s budget proposal for FY 12 also featuring substantial domestic spending reductions, the frame of the political discussion has moved from not whether spending should be cut, but by how much. Whether that discussion remains fixated on discretionary appropriations is more of an open question.
In the current situation in which all discretionary spending could be eliminated completely, effectively shutting down the government, yet there would still be a budget deficit, one might reasonably think that entitlement spending reform and tax reform (not to mention rethinking massive war spending) might be political topic number one. To date, however, it has not been.
Discussions are ongoing in the Senate, however, among the so-called gang of six (Democratic Senators Conrad, Durbin, and Warner and Republican Senators Crapo, Coburn, and Chambliss) about shaping a mega-budget deal built along the basic contours of last year’s presidential deficit reduction commission proposal.
That plan would cut the deficit by some $4 billion over the course of the next ten years, but would include political difficult cuts to Medicare and elimination of popular tax breaks. The plan would also make major changes to the 2008 Farm Bill, including substantial cuts to commodity program direct payments and to conservation programs as well as a huge increase in spending on farm disaster spending.
That mega-budget discussion will take time to work toward a possible resolution when Congress takes up the budget resolution for 2012 in April. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on the appropriations bill for the remainder of 2011.
The coming recess week, with Members of Congress back home in their states and districts, may prove pivotal to the outcome of the coming battle over these immediate matters of government funding and policy, with a potential government shutdown lurking in the background should the willingness to reach a compromise deal simply not be in the cards during this period of political extremism.