Five Cheers for the FY19 Appropriations Process
Matt Glassman | October 1, 2018
The 2019 federal fiscal year begins Monday, October 1st. To the surprise of many, the FY2019 appropriations process in Congress resulted in on-time passage of several of the annual appropriations bills. On September 21, President Trump signed the FY2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which contained the annual appropriations for three of the traditional twelve appropriations bills: the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act; the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act, and the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.
In addition, two other “minibus” bills—so named because they represent miniature omnibus bills, combining more than one but not all of the twelve annual appropriations bills—saw congressional action in late September. One bill contains the annual appropriations for Defense; Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education; and a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the rest of the government on a temporary basis. The conference report for the package passed the Senate on September 18th and the House on September 26th. The president signed it into law on September 28th. A second bill contains the annual appropriations for Agriculture; Financial Services and General Government; Interior; and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. This minibus has passed both chambers and is currently in conference negotiations.
Passing two minibus bills—which contain five of the twelve annual appropriations acts, leaving just the third near-completed minibus, as well as the State and Foreign Operations bill, the Homeland Security bill, and the Commerce, Justice, Science bill outstanding—is a significant departure from recent practice, which has seen almost no appropriations bills signed into law by the October 1 deadline in any year. Indeed, just passing any bills puts the FY2019 process further along by October 1 than almost any year in the last decade. It also stands in stark contrast to the FY2018 process, which featured a series of continuing resolutions (the first through December 8; a second through December 22; a third through January 19; a fourth through February 8; and a fifth through March 23) to keep the government operating on a temporary basis, two short lapses in appropriations (shutdowns), and a single omnibus bill.
What explains the success of the FY2019 bills this year after the complete bog down of the process in FY2018? The most important factor is the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which revised the statutory caps on both defense and non-defense discretionary spending for FY2018 and FY2019. Under the Budget Control Act of 2011 (as amended in 2013 and 2015), total defense and non-defense discretionary spending was to be capped at $549 and $516 billion in FY2018, and $562 and $530 billion in FY2019. For most members, Republican or Democrat, these numbers were unacceptably low; there was widespread agreement that the defense cap should be raised, and almost all Democrats (and many Republicans) sought to raise the non-defense caps as well.
Thus, a significant portion of the politics of the FY2018 appropriations was about how much to increase the caps, and how to distribute that increase between defense and non-defense. This issue doesn’t exist in FY2019; the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 set the caps for both FY2018 and FY2019. Therefore, Congress is working with a known top-line number, eliminating any struggle over what that number should be.
Second, the spending caps agreed upon in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 were huge increases over the existing caps. The defense cap was raised by $165 billion over the two-year period, and the non-defense cap was raised by $130 billion. Having a fixed top-line number reduces the political tension of the appropriations process, but having a fixed top-line number that is enormous really reduces the political tension of the process. Once these top-line increases trickle down into the actual appropriations, they provide more money for more programs, projects, and activities. In effect, more money means more interests can be satisfied, and more members have tangible reasons to support the speedy passage of the bills. No one wants to carve up and deliver an appropriations bill under an austerity budget, but with a large amount of money available, distributing the pie ceases to be a painful undertaking.
A third factor aiding the FY2019 bills is how they have been structured. The minibus strategy appears to have paid off. By packaging bills into groups for floor consideration, congressional leaders can seek to grow the supporting coalition and head off potential objectors. This was clearly true with the Defense and Labor/HHS package. They were brought up in a combined bill in the Senate on the theory that by marrying a traditional Republican priority (Defense) with a traditional Democratic priority (Labor/HHS), a broad coalition could be assembled for passage. While this does risk a broad coalition against passage—everyone, in theory, might find something in the bill that they hate—it worked out very well this time. The final vote in the Senate was 93-7.
Likewise, packaging three of the least controversial bills (Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction / Veterans) into the first minibus allowed the process to get off to a smooth start, building momentum and heading off resignation that the only possible path was a continuing resolution. Similarly, the most controversial bill—Homeland Security, which may or may not include funding for a proposed border wall—has been fenced off and shelved until after the election, in an attempt to keep it from contaminating the rest of the process.
A final factor aiding the FY2019 appropriations process is the looming 2018 midterm elections. Many members of Congress are eager to return home and campaign in October, and most would like to do so with some significant accomplishments to brag about. Getting six or ten of the annual appropriations bills done provides a nice talking point, particularly against charges of government gridlock and partisan paralysis. In addition, one of the largest stumbling blocks on appropriations in the past several years has been the emergence of the House Freedom Caucus, and their unwillingness to simply fall in line with congressional Republican leaders. With unified Republican control of the White House and Congress, the Freedom Caucus now appears less willing to provoke a serious appropriations fight or shutdown, perhaps out of fear that such a fight would negatively impact Republicans in the election.