Democrats blast Puerto Rico aid hold at budget hearing

Russell Vought, left, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, talks with ranking member Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., before a House Budget Committee hearing on President Donald Trump's 2021 budget on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Russell Vought, left, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, talks with ranking member Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., before a House Budget Committee hearing on President Donald Trump's 2021 budget on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 12, 2020 at 5:35pm

The White House's top budget official took flak from House Democrats for withholding previously appropriated funds, including emergency aid to Puerto Rico, during a hearing on President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget proposal Wednesday.

Democrats on the House Budget Committee accused the Office of Management and Budget of preventing the Department of Housing and Urban Development from even asking for the Puerto Rico money, which lawmakers appropriated in 2018 for HUD's Community Development Block Grant program.

[Puerto Rico aid package passes House over GOP objections]

“HUD has provided testimony saying that OMB has purported to curtail their ability even to request this funding to be made available to HUD,” House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David E. Price told Russell Vought, the budget office's acting chief. “Is this true?” Price, a North Carolina Democrat, added that OMB “has no authority in law or anywhere else to control what an agency requests.”

The $20 billion appropriation was in four parts: an initial $1.5 billion; a second round of $8.2 billion for longer-term recovery needs, such as infrastructure and housing; another $8.3 billion to help island officials take steps to mitigate future disasters; and $1.9 billion to help rebuild the island's electrical grid. Last month, the administration announced the $16.5 billion in recovery and mitigation funds would soon be made available, but there hasn't yet been an update on the grid upgrade funding.

Referring to a process in which OMB tells agencies how quickly to spend money, Vought said OMB is “apportioning everything that HUD needs to be able to move forward with the CDBG funding,” including “the initial $1.5 billion that was tranched out and then another $8.2 billion for unmet needs.”

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Vought added that “we don’t want this money to go to waste, we want it to actually help the people of Puerto Rico, we want to make sure that they don’t all get it in one lump sum and it overwhelms their political system where they had a governor that had to resign from corruption.”

Ricardo A. Rossello resigned as Puerto Rico's governor last July amid a huge street protest, with many of the protesters citing years of financial mismanagement and corruption and a poor response to Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Price said Vought was not addressing his question. “I’m asking you about what the HUD people tell us, that they had trouble even getting authority to request the money from OMB, and I’m looking for what your authority is to do that?” Price said.

Vought said he would not get into the “deliberative process.” But he added that “it comes from our apportionment statutes, the ability to make sure that money is spent efficiently and economically, to make sure that there are spend plans in place, and it comes from our authority to consider when there are notifications to be able to have new regulatory pronouncements that go out to make sure that they go through a rigid fact-based process.”

Not satisfied with the explanation, Price asked Vought to provide a detailed written answer to his questions.

The exchange was the latest dispute between Democrats and the White House over aid to Puerto Rico. The House last week passed a new emergency relief bill (HR 5687), worth $21 billion in tax breaks and direct appropriations, but the administration said they'd veto it. Democrats introduced the bill largely to respond to recent earthquakes on the island but also to aid the ongoing hurricane recovery effort.

No budget likely this year

During the hearing, Democrats generally took aim at Trump's election year budget request as insensitive to the needs of lower-income Americans who utilize safety net programs like food stamps, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars in proposed cuts to health care entitlements. Since leaders in both chambers have already said they don't plan to adopt a budget resolution this year, however, there is little chance of Trump's cuts getting enacted.

Republicans nonetheless complained that House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., is not going to write a fiscal 2021 budget resolution, even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says he's unlikely to bring one to the floor in that chamber. Yarmuth said there is no need for a budget resolution because the two-year budget deal (PL 116-37) passed last year sets discretionary spending caps for fiscal 2021.

Though Vought would typically also testify before the Senate Budget Committee, that panel's chairman, Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., did not invite him this year.

It marks the first time the Senate committee is not holding a hearing on a president’s budget since 2016, when Enzi and then-House Budget Chairman Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, both declined to invited then-President Barack Obama’s budget chief, Shaun Donovan. Enzi at that time cited what he said was Obama’s unwillingness to propose a budget that would address the growing debt, which at that time stood at $19 trillion. It has since grown to more than $23 trillion.

Enzi “looks forward to working together with his colleagues in the months ahead to develop a plan that reflects the bipartisan priorities of Congress and that will help to put us on a more sustainable fiscal path,” an aide said in a statement. But it is unclear whether Enzi still plans to try to advance what he calls a “bipartisan” budget resolution, given McConnell's stance on bringing a budget to the floor.