Will Congress finally have a normal(ish) appropriations cycle?



Mark Harkins | May 6, 2015

Last week, there was a story (pay wall) in Congressional Quarterly on the Military Construction-VA Appropriations bill.  I was intrigued when Rep. David Price (NC-4), the longtime appropriator on the Democratic side and the current Ranking Member on the Transportation-HUD Subcommittee (T-HUD) was predicting that “there would be a point during the appropriations process this year when a spending measure would be defeated due to a lack of support [and] that would eventually force leaders to negotiate a new budget deal.” The last appropriations cycle before the Ryan-Murray agreement halted for exactly this reason.

I grew up in the Fourth District of North Carolina and am a former staffer for Rep. Price and believe he is one of the smartest Members of the House or Senate.  That said, I believe there are reasons to believe this appropriations cycle may be different than the last.

In July 2013 when House leadership had to pull the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) spending bill from the floor because it lacked the votes to pass. A frustrated Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (KY-5) excoriated the House leadership.  After that, no stand-alone appropriations bill was considered in the House and in October the government shut down.  This ultimately lead to the Bipartisan Budget Act, also known as Ryan-Murray, that dampened the effects of sequester for two years.  At that time, the House was trying to run the government with $1.06 trillion (including the off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations account), approximately $120 billion fewer dollars than just two years before in FY12.

The budget resolution for FY16 allows for $1.11 trillion (again, including the off-budget funding for Overseas Contingency Operations) which, while not a large increase over FY12, is only $2 billion less than two years ago.  While flat funding is no picnic, it is significantly better than the 11% cut that House leaders tried to get pushed through in FY13 and is not likely to lead Republicans to vote against bills in the House.

And that’s what it is going to take.  Even if all Democrats voted against the Energy and Water appropriations bill last week, it would have passed 230-187.  That’s still a pretty health margin to work with on future bills.

I will say I think the T-HUD is the most likely to become a problem.  Outside of defense, it is the bill with the second largest percentage decrease (just under 4%) in funding since FY12 behind only the Financial Services and General Government bill.   The Financial Services bill includes most of the alphabet agencies like IRS, FEC, CSPC, FLRA, OPM, all agencies the majority won’t mind getting a bit of a haircut.

It would not surprise me if T-HUD got held up in the process if the Republican leadership believes they do not have the votes to pass it.  But the fact that it is the next bill up in the pipeline indicates to me that they believe they DO have the votes.  Of course, they probably thought they had the votes in July of 2013 as well!

Of course the Senate is another kettle of fish.  There, you will need 60 votes to overcome expected Democratic filibusters of the appropriations bills.  With only 54 Republicans in the Chamber when Presidential candidates are actually in DC, that means a minimum of 6 Democrats will be needed.  That may be very difficult to secure and the only reason that a budget deal to raise the spending limits will be needed.


Mark Harkins is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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Categories: 114th Congress, Budget and Appropriations, Federal Budget and Appropriations, Revise & Extend, Updates