House Democrats planning post-pandemic acceleration to appropriations process

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have been slow getting their process moving

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey is eying a fast start on fiscal 2021 spending bills once the coronavirus pandemic has abated. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey is eying a fast start on fiscal 2021 spending bills once the coronavirus pandemic has abated. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 10, 2020 at 2:30pm

House Democrats are laying the groundwork for quick action on fiscal 2021 spending bills when the COVID-19 clouds part and appropriators are able to start markups. But none of that matters without the Senate, where Republicans have been facing intractable problems getting their process moving.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey this week distributed preliminary spending allocations, known as 302(b)s, divvying up nearly $1.4 trillion to the dozen subcommittee leaders who will draft next year’s bills.

That chamber’s Democratic leaders can still muscle the bills through the floor this summer on party-line votes if necessary. But those same methods don’t exist in the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to advance spending bills.

And while House appropriators typically start their cycle before their Senate counterparts, this year’s nearly flat funding levels and sharp increases necessary for veterans health care programs are proving especially challenging to obtain bipartisan cooperation even on preliminary allocations.

“We’re struggling to find a bipartisan path forward that works within the [discretionary spending] caps deal struck last year,” said a person familiar with the Senate spending panel’s internal deliberations who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The problem is particularly acute for non-defense programs, which are in line for just 0.4 percent more overall than the previous year, or about $2.5 billion. That’s a much tighter budget than the previous year, when appropriators started out with almost $27 billion extra, a more than 4 percent increase.

Even with more generous increases to go around last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee initially wasn’t able to reach bipartisan agreement on subcommittee funding allocations. Ranking member Patrick J. Leahy offered his own set of allocations, which the GOP rejected, and Republicans approved their own on a party-line vote.

That impasse was partly due to a big increase President Donald Trump sought for U.S.-Mexico border wall construction, about $3.6 billion in fiscal 2020. For next year Trump is only looking for $625 million more than what was eventually appropriated, but that’s still a sizable chunk of the overall non-defense increase allowed under the budget caps.

New normal?

The narrow increases slated for next year’s non-defense discretionary spending has caused concerns for months, but lawmakers and staff now have to figure out whether those numbers are workable at all. In addition to steep increases requested for veterans health care, there are already calls for Congress to boost spending on public health programs given the new funding realities that have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

An additional $3 billion in housing loan-related receipts will help to make ends meet, as will a large drop-off in Census Bureau spending as most of the 2020 census costs are already accounted for.

But much of the housing money could be needed just to keep pace with inflation in rental assistance for low-income households. And veterans health care money — already approved through advance appropriations — more than eats up any additional room within the non-defense cap for fiscal 2021.

On both sides of the aisle there's already talk of new “cap adjustments,” including for veterans health care, similar to the extra $2.5 billion provided last year for the one-time census costs. A House Democratic aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said there will need to be a new round of negotiations on spending levels, whether through cap adjustments for specific programs or overall increases in tight fiscal 2021 caps.

Through a spokesman, Lowey said she “strongly supports budget cap exemptions to assist in the response to coronavirus and the ensuing economic collapse.”

“Sadly, this pandemic has laid bare how budget caps restrict resources for important federal efforts like public health,” committee spokesman Evan Hollander said in a statement. “It is critical that we don’t allow such shortsighted limitations to continue this year.”

But even if the House and Senate can agree on spending cap exemptions, the Trump administration isn’t showing any signs of budging, for COVID-19, regular veterans health care or any other reason. A senior administration official noted the large amount of supplemental appropriations already provided since the start of March.

“Congress has already appropriated over $320 billion this year outside of the budget caps to address coronavirus,” said a senior administration official, not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “We’ll continue to monitor unanticipated needs, but we’re not entertaining any FY21 cap adjustments at this time.”

If the appropriations process drags out past the November elections, as expected, there’s another option: Punt unfinished bills into early next year through a stopgap measure continuing current funding levels.

In that situation, congressional leaders could potentially be dealing with a different White House that’s more willing to bargain for higher spending.