At the beginning of last week, Congress had only passed two of the eleven FY 2007 appropriations bills that fund various government agencies. Facing a choice between additional weeks of contentious debate on the remaining appropriations bills, or a stopgap spending resolution that would temporarily fund federal programs into next year, the Republican leadership chose the latter during a brief session of Congress last week. The task of finishing the remaining FY 2007 spending bills now falls to Democrats, who will assume control of both chambers of Congress in January. The continuing resolution that Congress passed just before midnight on December 8 will expire on February 15, 2007.
Although Democrats have dreamed about controlling the government’s purse strings for years, they were not particularly happy with the decision to punt FY 2007 spending issues into next year. In fact, Representative David Obey (D-WI), who will become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in January, called the decision “reckless and irresponsible inaction.” He said that having to make decisions on the remaining FY 2007 appropriations bills could complicate action on President Bush’s budget for FY 2008 and forthcoming requests for additional spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Either the Congress will be consumed for months trying to pass those remaining bills…or it will be forced to pass some long-term continuing funding resolution,” Obey said. He said that either of those scenarios would represent “lousy outcomes,” which could have been prevented by Republican action last week.
In addition, the need to finalize FY 2007 spending when Congress returns will rob time and energy that Democrats had hoped to devote to their own agenda, which includes raising the minimum wage, negotiating lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries, cutting interest rates on college loans, and repealing some tax breaks for oil companies. Prior to the election, House Democrats pledged to pass all of these initiatives during the first one hundred legislative hours of the new Congress.
Appropriations Approval Already Two Months Late
Only the appropriations bills for the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security have been signed into law so far. The nine remaining bills account for about $460 billion of spending in support of government programs and have largely been held up because of disagreements within the Republican Party. For example, in March, the Senate passed an amendment by Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) andTom Harkin (D-IA), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which added $7 billion to the pool of money available for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor. The amendment, which enjoyed considerable bipartisan support, passed on a 73–27 vote.
To fund the Specter-Harkin amendment, the Senate stripped money from the Department of Defense appropriations bill but had to restore about $5 billion after President Bush threatened to veto it. With other options limited, the Senate was looking at breaking through the $873 billion FY 2007 discretionary spending limit that it had set for itself earlier in the year in order to provide the additional funding that the amendment promised—a move that many conservative Republicans were unwilling to make.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed all of its appropriations packages except for the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill. Back in May, Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) had promised Republican moderates an additional $7 billion in funding for those departments in exchange for their support on the congressional budget resolution. Going into last week, the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill was approximately $3 billion short of meeting the pledge. Without the extra funding, moderates continued to withhold their support for the bill, which, without support from the moderates, lacked the votes to pass.
This inability to come to agreement, combined with Republican losses on Election Day—which, according to the Washington Post, “sapped Republican enthusiasm for trying to finish [the remaining spending bills]”—led Republicans to abandon their efforts.
During the debate on the continuing resolution last week, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee criticized the Republican leadership for failing to pass the appropriations bills. “The majority leadership is apparently satisfied with a mindless continuing resolution,” Byrd said. He noted that while the Senate Appropriations Committee passed all of its bills by August, only two were debated and passed on the Senate floor. “That is a pathetic, sorry performance,” he said.
What Will the New Year Bring?
In an effort to finish work on FY2007 spending as soon as possible, Representative Obey and Senator Byrd announced on December 11 that Congress will pass a yearlong continuing resolution for the remaining government agencies when it returns in January.
“The outgoing Republican Leadership’s failure to govern has denied the new Congress the opportunity to start with a fresh slate,” the statement said. “As incoming Chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, we are now responsible for finding a way out of this fiscal mayhem. It is important that we clear the decks quickly so that we can get to work on the American people’s priorities, the President’s anticipated war funding request, and a new budget.”
In their statement, Senator Byrd and Representative Obey acknowledged that they had “no good options available,” but said they would try to make “whatever limited adjustments” that were possible within the confines of the Republican budget and its $873 billion spending cap.
“There is no good way out of the fiscal chaos left behind by the outgoing Congress,” the statement said. “But that is a temporary price that we will pay in order to give the President’s new budget the attention and oversight it deserves and requires, and so that we can begin work right away at putting the people’s priorities front and center.”
|House and Senate Committee Chairmen and Ranking Members Announced
Last week, both Democrats and Republicans took the first step toward putting their committee rosters into place by appointing chairmen and ranking members. For the most part, committees simply “flipped,” with the highest-ranking Democrat assuming the chairmanship while the highest-ranking Republican will take over as the ranking member, the highest committee position for the minority party.
Representative David Obey (D-WI) will serve as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee while Representative George Miller (D-CA) will chair the Education and the Workforce Committee. In addition, Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) will be the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and Representative John Spratt, Jr. (D-SC) will chair the Budget Committee.
For Republicans, incumbent chairmen will move to the ranking member position, which means that Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA) will be the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, and Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) will be the ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Committee. In addition, Representative Jim McCrery (R-LA) will serve as ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, replacing Representative William Thomas (R-CA), who retired. Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) was elected ranking member of the Budget Committee; he will replace Representative Jim Nussle (R-IA), who lost his bid for governor of Iowa.
In the Senate, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) will serve as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS)is expected to be the ranking member. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) will chair the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, with Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY) to serve as the ranking member. In addition, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) will chair the Finance Committee, and Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) will be the ranking member. Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) will chair the Budget Committee, and Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) will serve as the ranking member.