Update from Washington, D.C. 07/20/2012
With transportation reauthorization in the rearview mirror,
Congress has shifted its focus to some of the major fiscal issues
facing the country, including efforts to revise the impending
across-the-board spending cuts in defense and non-defense
programs. The reductions, which were approved as part of last
year’s Budget Control Act (PL 112-25), are scheduled to take
effect on January 2nd.
Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on how to revise the automatic cuts, known as budget sequestration, though both parties acknowledge that the reductions need to be modified. Republicans generally support spending cuts, with some modifications, while many Democrats argue that additional revenue must be part of any potential solution. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree, however, that more information is needed on how the sequester would be implemented and how the cuts would impact individual programs and industries.
The House overwhelmingly approved legislation (HR 5872) on July 18 that would require the Obama administration to explain how sequestration would affect both domestic and defense programs. Across Capitol Hill, the Senate adopted an amendment to its farm bill reauthorization measure (S 3240) that would require similar reports from the Office of Management and Budget, the Defense Department, and the White House. It is unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will bring a separate measure to the floor.
In a related development, House Democrats are calling on GOP leaders to allow a quick and “clean” vote on a bill to raise the federal debt ceiling before the nation reaches its borrowing limit. Although there is no definitive date forecast for when the debt limit will be breached, Democrats are hoping to avoid the same budget confrontation that led to the Budget Control Act. For his part, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) continues to maintain that Congress should cut spending by an amount equivalent to the debt ceiling increase.
With all of the focus on the budget sequester and debt limit, the fiscal year 2013 appropriations measures have temporarily taken a backseat. Thus far, the House Appropriations Committee has cleared 11 of the 12 annual spending bills, with five measures approved by the full House. In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee has approved nine spending bills, but the full chamber has yet to consider any of the fiscal year 2013 appropriations measures.
At this point, it is likely that lawmakers will need to approve a stopgap measure to extend federal funding beyond the end of the current fiscal year, which ends in September. Leaders of both parties would be open to an early deal in order to avoid any threat of a government shutdown before the elections. While there is no agreement in place on the duration and size of a continuing resolution (CR), it will likely last beyond election day and possibly until the end of December.
Perhaps further complicating budget negotiations, the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that it would grant waivers to states, exempting them from the work requirements written into welfare legislation (PL 104-193) enacted during the Clinton administration. Under the law, states generally must enroll half of their participating families in job-training programs in order to qualify for the funding. Republicans contend that the waivers will undermine the law’s goal of weaning people off welfare and guiding them into the workforce.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, tried to advance a package outlined by President Obama that would extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts on income under $200,000 for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers. House Republicans, on the other hand, are planning a vote this month to extend the tax cuts to everyone, including high-income earners. Both measures are entirely symbolic and have no chance of passage. They are, instead, intended to draw the stark differences between the two parties in advance of the November elections.
In other developments, the House Agriculture Committee approved its farm bill reauthorization measure (HR 6083) on July 11. Overall, the legislation would produce a savings of $35 billion in mandatory funding over the next 10 years, which is $12 billion more than the Senate-approved bill (S 3240).
Cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formally known as food stamps, would make up the biggest savings – $16.1 billion. This is more than three times the amount proposed in the Senate bill. Most of the cuts would come from scaled-back automatic eligibility in the program. During a marathon markup session, the panel rejected Democratic efforts to restore funding to the program, as well as a GOP amendment that would have made even deeper cuts. It is unclear when, or if, HR 6083 will be scheduled for floor time.
In other news, the House last week approved legislation (HR 6079) that would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in its entirety. The move was largely a symbolic response to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to uphold the constitutionality of the law. Since the start of the 112th Congress, House Republicans have made more than 30 attempts to cut back, dismantle, or defund parts of the ACA. Like the GOP’s earlier efforts, HR 6079 will likely not be considered by the Senate.