Appropriations Update

Mark Harkins | November 4, 2019

Here we go again. To keep the government funded past the start of the fiscal year on October 1st, Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) that lasts until November 21st. Over the last decade, during non-election years, it has taken, on average, SIX months into the fiscal year before all 12 appropriations bills have been finalized. Regrettably, this looks to be another average year.

By November 21st, we’re unlikely to see any of the 12 bills approved by Congress and signed by the President.  While there is concern that the next CR could last until February or March, Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Pelosi spoke last week and agreed they would work to have all the bills wrapped up before December 31st.

Either way, there are significant hurdles for any of the twelve bills to become law.  First, as of November 4th, the House had passed ten of the twelve bills, but the Senate had passed only four.  In addition, the Senate could not even proceed to consideration of the Defense or Labor, HHS, and Education bills last week.  Needing 60 votes to overcome a Democratic-led filibuster, Leader McConnell could only get 51. The Democrats objected to insufficient appropriations for the Labor-HHS-Education bill, and a lack of clarity on funding for President Trump’s Southwest border wall.

It was not supposed to go this way.  On August 2nd, President Trump signed into law the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019” (BBA 2019) which substantially increased the amount of funding for defense and non-defense accounts.  But it turns out having access to more funds is not enough to reach appropriation deals.

The House and the Senate appropriations committees determine how the funds are divvied up between the 12 individual appropriations subcommittees (thereby allocating specific amounts to each of the bills) and, at the moment, they do not agree. The House has been more generous to non-security bills such as Labor-HHS-Education and Agriculture, while the Senate has provided more for Energy-Water and Homeland Security.

Not all hope is lost on this front, however.  Congressional and White House staff met last Tuesday to discuss how to allocate the more than $1.29 trillion made available in BBA 2019.  While it is too early to know if these discussions can lead to a breakthrough by the elected officials, it is a sign of positive movement in an environment otherwise rife with contestation.

It’s worth remembering, though, that even a deal reached by Congress on funding levels will not necessarily solve the problem, as President Trump showed early this year.  Even after the Republican-controlled Senate passed a CR last December, the President indicated he would not support it because it lacked $5 million for the Southwest border wall. The government was then shut down for 35 days. The dynamics around funding for the wall have changed little since that time.

There is hope that another shutdown, if it materializes, would not last as long.  The one at the beginning of the year only affected about one-fourth of federal agency spending and did not affect either the Department of Defense or Congress itself.  A shutdown at this point would presumably impact the entire federal government and the public might not be as accommodating to their elected officials’ inability to keep the government lights on, especially heading into the busy holiday period.

Going forward, listen for how the various leaders discuss the situation to glean insight. If the President or his allies believe a government shutdown would halt impeachment proceedings (it would not) and allow him to continue to fund his wall beyond what Congress has already allocated (perhaps, depending on court decisions) he may be willing to close government. If Leader McConnell and Speaker Pelosi continue trying to hammer out a deal, maybe the crisis can be kicked down the road by at least passing some of the bills or a CR at a minimum. Remember, both Pelosi and McConnell were members of their chambers’ appropriation committees and both well know how the process works.

The good news is all the players, through their various staffs, are at least talking.  Maybe cooler heads will prevail and FY2020 funding for all agencies can be secured before New Year’s. We can only hope!


Mark Harkins is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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