Congress is on the verge of heading home for a five-week vacation (“home work period” is the euphemism they use). In the run-up to heading out of town, both chambers were hard at work on their Constitutionally-mandated duty of passing appropriations bills to direct federal funding for the next fiscal year starting October 1. In a somewhat unique twist, both chambers happened to be working at the same time on the same funding bill: the fiscal year (FY) 2014 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, or THUD.
THUD is an appropriate acronym, since both the House and Senate versions have come crashing down.
The House bill did not even get a vote. The Senate vote for cloture (which ends debate on the bill) failed to receive the necessary 60 votes (it got 54). And if what we are hearing from sources on the Hill holds true, this is the last you’ll hear of either bill until Congress rolls them up into an enormous “continuing resolution” (CR) that provides funding for some or all of the twelve spending bills at current year levels. Since Congress also used an enormous CR last year for all but five of the bills, the result is that much of the government will be funded at levels from two years ago, with virtually no adjustments to increase funding where more is needed or decrease funding where it’s not; which is the purpose of passing annual appropriations bills in the first place.
A small illustration of the absurdity of the situation: the last time a stand-alone Transportation/HUD funding bill was signed into law was November 2005, to provide funding for FY06.
And what happened to this year’s THUD bills in each chamber is a lesson in the differences in approach between the two chambers. The Budget Control Actof 2011 – the legislation that put in place the much-discussed across-the-board sequester cuts and requires Congress meet previously-agreed upon spending levels, is at the center of a large difference in funding levels in each chamber’s bill.
The House, based upon the budget put forward by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), is proceeding on the assumption that sequester, currently the law of the land, remains in force. As a result, total discretionary spending for the year would be held to $967 billion. The estimated breakdown of that amount would leave $498 billion for defense-related spending and $469 billion for everything else. But the Ryan budget goes another step, increasing military spending by $54 billion and therefore cutting non-defense spending by the same $54 billion. That puts a squeeze on the non-defense appropriations bills. This squeeze is made tighter because the House assumes level spending for Homeland Security and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs spending bills, leaving $309 billion for the nine other appropriations bills.
Of that, the House committed just under $44 billion for the THUD bill. After a full day of debate over amendments, as the debate over the bill was nearing its conclusion, House leadership decided to pull the bill from the floor. The reason: it lacked the votes to pass it. Most or all Democrats had peeled off because the cuts to programs were too deep; and enough Republicans had peeled off because the cuts weren’t deep enough. In the end, leadership could not be sure they had the 218 votes to pass the bill, and left Harold Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, fuming and arguing that this is evidence the sequester needs to be ended. In essence, he was making the point that Republicans don’t have the votes to pass the sequester-driven Ryan budget levels of spending without some Democrats on board, which is unlikely to happen.
The Senate, for its part, also ignores the BCA spending levels, but does so by blasting through them and assuming the end of sequester. As a result, the Senate funds the government at $1.06 trillion for FY14. That allows them to increase defense-related spending by the same $54 billion as the House while also increasing non-defense spending (over BCA levels) by more than $37 billion. The Senate also assumes level spending for the Homeland Security and Military Construction/Veterans Affairs spending bills, but its higher spending levels also allow for a $54 billion THUD bill, nearly $10 billion more than the House.
The Senate was also deep into the process of debating the THUD bill when it fell apart. After several days of debate over amendments to the legislation, the bill should have been nearing final passage. But if there is not unanimous agreement to end debate, cloture (an end to debate) can be invoked. Cloture requires 60 votes to pass, so Democrats obviously needed a handful of Republicans to vote with them to end debate and move toward a final vote. Senate Republican leadership, however, used the higher-than-BCA spending levels to rally their conference and prevent that from occurring. Therefore, the Senate bill enters the same legislative purgatory as the House bill.
So, where does that leave things? It has been clear from the beginning that this was not going to be the Congress to pass twelve separate appropriations bills for the President’s signature before the start of the new fiscal year. The last time that happened was way back in 1994. In fact, the current scorecard is downright dismal: the House has passed four appropriations bills (Defense, Energy & Water, Homeland Security, Military Construction /Veterans Affairs); the Senate has passed zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
So even the modest hope of a stand-alone Defense bill – since both chambers agree on the funding level – or Homeland Security or Veterans Affairs is fading (and even if both chambers managed to send one of these to the president, it would likely be vetoed if other spending bills received deep cuts). When Congress returns, there are just a few short weeks until the current fiscal year ends on September 30. A House recess the week before the new fiscal year constrains the timeline even further, leaving just nine legislative days in September. Given the differences in spending levels on nine of the twelve bills, it is impossible to envision a scenario where the House and Senate meet in the middle on any one. A $3.5 trillion budget on yet another year of auto-pilot may be all but assured.