A side agreement among congressional leaders to allocate some of the new nondefense funding to opioid abuse prevention, infrastructure and several other priorities is complicating the plan to write a fiscal 2018 omnibus.
Even if that weren’t the case, appropriators say they don’t like being micromanaged.
“We’ve turned it into a Rubik’s Cube that I think is going to be difficult to manage,” Rep. Tom Cole said, although he added, “We’ll get it done.”
The Oklahoma Republican said the agreement makes it more difficult to divide the new nondefense funding among subcommittee spending bills because decisions have to be made about how to spend the money for each priority.
Take, for example, the $6 billion reserved for opioid abuse prevention and mental health over two years.
“Some people would say it should all come to my committee,” Cole said, referring to the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee he chairs. “Well no, some of this is going to be law enforcement, so some of it needs to be over at CJS,” the Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee. Cole said the side agreement does not “go down to the subcommittee level and so there’s going to have to be a tremendous push and pull to sort exactly where that money goes in the nondefense discretionary category.”
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While he credits GOP leaders with reaching an agreement to boost defense spending, Cole said they may not have been aware of the challenge of fulfilling the nondefense spending side agreement “because I don’t think they had the appropriators as deeply involved in that process.”
An Office of Management and Budget official said the administration would make its fiscal 2019 budget request Monday and would send Congress an addendum showing how it would like to spend the additional money allowed under the caps established by the budget law enacted Friday. The caps would allow $143 billion in additional spending in fiscal 2018 and $153 billion in fiscal 2019.
Rep. Charlie Dent, who chairs the Military Construction-VA Subcommittee, said he’s concerned the agreement might not permit as much funding as he would like for the Veterans Choice Program, which provides veterans an option to seek care in private facilities if they have difficulty reaching a Veterans Affairs facility. But the Pennsylvania Republican said it’s too early to know for sure.
Dent said his understanding is that the $4 billion reserved for veterans’ programs is meant for maintenance of veterans’ health care facilities. While he agreed maintenance was important, he said his “main priority right now is taking care of Veterans Choice and that’s where we have this immediate problem and I’d rather put it in Choice.”
Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, chairman of the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, is withholding judgment until he sees how it plays out. “I don’t know what the process will be, how they will communicate those numbers and categories,” he said. “So we’ve got to wait and see a bit.”
“I don’t have much of an argument on the numbers,” Rogers said, referring to the specific amounts for each priority. “It is somewhat concerning to me, though, that it’s taking a lot of the prerogatives of the appropriations process and our committee, which I’m not thrilled about.”
Rep. Steve Womack, the new Budget chairman who also sits on Appropriations, said he understands why leadership is targeting those areas. “I understand that strategy, but as an appropriator, we never like to have our work prescribed for us in terms of detail,” the Arkansas Republican said.
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‘Full of winners and losers’
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the chairman of the Transportation-HUD Subcomittee, said Thursday he expects his panel to control an additional $20 billion more for infrastructure spending that could be appropriated under the budget deal.
The Florida Republican staked an early House appropriations claim to money that could be appropriated in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. The budget deal said the money would go not only for transportation infrastructure that falls within Diaz-Balart’s panel, but also for water, energy and broadband projects that typically would fall under the responsibility of other Appropriations subcommittees.
Cole said the division of the extra $20 billion for infrastructure spending over the next two fiscal years hasn’t been decided. He predicted the subcommittees would fight for control of a package.
“It’s not going to all go where everybody would like,” Cole said. “But there’ll be a very quiet, very intense, behind-the-scenes struggle [that] will be full of winners and losers.”
Leaders who described the range of uses for the $20 billion didn’t spell out in any detail how it would be divided or through which programs it would be channeled. Federal rural broadband support, for example, could move through several channels, including the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission.
Leaders in both chambers agreed to provide $131 billion in nondefense discretionary spending in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 above current-law caps, including $20 billion set aside for transportation, water, energy and rural broadband infrastructure.
Asked Thursday if he had an idea of how the new $20 billion would be split up, Diaz-Balart said he didn’t know but that he expected “$20 [billion]-plus for my subcommittee.” That money would be spent on programs that had been underfunded at the current budget cap, he said.
“We put our bill together on a very, very shoestring budget,” he said. “And so the first thing we’d have to do is fill some gaps that we have there. But, look, there are a lot of authorized needs that have not been funded because we haven’t had the money.”
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Infrastructure defined broadly
Leaders from both parties have said the infrastructure carve-out would be used for issues that fall outside Transportation-HUD’s jurisdiction, including energy, water systems and broadband.
Senate Democratic aides said the splits had not been determined.
“Nothing is set in terms of where the infrastructure money is going or isn’t going, with the exception of things that are listed in the agreement,” said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
The nonspecific commitment to infrastructure worried Oregon Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who said at a Thursday news conference the administration could count spending that didn’t actually go toward needed transportation infrastructure improvements. DeFazio also said he was concerned President Donald Trump would count some non-transportation spending to take credit for more infrastructure spending than actually occurs.
“There’s an ostensible $20 billion for infrastructure writ large, which in Trump World means virtually anything,” DeFazio said, adding that the administration has taken credit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline as an infrastructure achievement. “As much as we can tell, a small fraction of that $10 billion of that per year would go into transportation infrastructure. … It’s nowhere near what we need.”
DeFazio spoke at an event where House Democrats introduced a proposal to allocate $1 trillion of federal money on infrastructure.
Also calling for an increase in infrastructure spending was House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows. The North Carolina Republican, who opposed the budget bill, said he may have voted for a measure that had the same topline nondefense discretionary number if much more of it went to infrastructure.
“If we’d taken $100 billion of that and put it over in infrastructure, I could’ve voted for it,” Meadows said.