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SHOW ME THE WAY TO GO HOME: Democrats Pare Spending in Effort to Finish Appropriations Before the End of the Year

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"The omnibus appropriations bill is totally inadequate to meet the long-term investment needs of the country, but it is a whole lot better than the country would have without a Democratic Congress," Obey said.

On February 5 of this year, when President Bush released his budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2008, many observers called it “dead on arrival” because it held discretionary spending to about a 1 percent increase-less than the rate of inflation-and cut the funding of several departments, including the U.S. Department of Education. However, after months of partisan wrangling, veto threats, and veto override attempts, it is now becoming clear that the president may actually get a final discretionary spending total that is very close to his $933 billion target. Nevertheless, Congressional Democrats were able to move money around to fund key priorities, such as a $2 billion increase for the U.S. Department of Education, while staying within the president’s spending limit.

On December 16, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-WI) unveiled an omnibus spending bill that folds the eleven remaining appropriations bills into one piece of legislation. The omnibus bill falls just below the president’s spending limit. And although it provides much less money for domestic priorities than Democrats sought, it probably represents the best chance to finish the appropriations process before the end of the year. But that does not mean that Chairman Obey is happy with the way it turned out. “The omnibus appropriations bill is totally inadequate to meet the long-term investment needs of the country, but it is a whole lot better than the country would have without a Democratic Congress,” Obey said.

On December 17, the House passed the bill by a vote of 253-154. The Senate is scheduled to act on the bill on December 18. Early indications from the White House seem to indicate that the president will sign the bill if he can secure $40 billion in additional funding for the war in Iraq via the amendment process in the Senate. If the Senate adds the additional money for Iraq, the bill will be sent back to the House of Representatives for another vote. Its passage will undoubtedly require additional Republican support over what it received on the 17th, as anti-war Democrats who originally voted for the omnibus bill are likely to change their votes in order not to support additional war funding. However, if the House passes the bill at that point without changes to the Senate version, the bill will go to the president for his signature.

To understand how the process got to this point requires quite a bit of backtracking. In May, Congress passed a budget plan that set a spending target of approximately $956 billion-$23 billion more than the president sought. At the time, over one hundred Republicans signed a letter pledging to support the president should he decide to veto any appropriations bill that exceeded his spending targets. A few months later, they got their chance.

In October, Congress put the final touches on the FY 2008 Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education appropriations and set up a showdown with the president over spending. The bill, which funds the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and other agencies such as the Social Security Administration, would have provided nearly $10 billion more for discretionary spending than the amount included in the president’s budget, including $4.7 billion more than the president had requested for the U.S. Department of Education. Rather than signing the bill, President Bush vetoed it on November 13, saying, “This bill spends too much. …. This year, the Congress plans to overspend my budget by $22 billion, of which $10 billion is for increases in this bill.”

Hoping that they could convince enough Republican moderates to vote against the president, the Democratic leadership held a vote to override the veto on November 15. Although fifty-one Republicans voted to override, the final vote tally, 277-141, fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority required. Fifteen members of Congress did not vote.

On the same day, Congressional Democrats announced a “split-the-difference” plan to cut their proposed increase in discretionary spending by 50 percent, but that plan quickly fell apart as the president held his line on spending and conservative Republicans continued to pledge to uphold any veto that the president made. Reacting to the president’s refusal to consider the split-the-difference plan, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) said, “It is extraordinary that the president would request an 11 percent increase for the Department of Defense, a 12 percent increase for foreign aid, and $195 billion of emergency funding for the war, while asserting that a 4.7 percent increase for domestic programs is fiscally irresponsible.”

At that point, Obey began working on a bill that would combine the remaining eleven appropriations bills, including the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, into one omnibus bill that would contain a level of discretionary funding on par with the president’s demands. Even after agreeing to meet the president’s demands on spending, Obey ran into challenges from both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, who continued to push for “earmarks” in the final bill. Earmarks, which are also known as pork, are provisions inserted in bills by legislators that contain money targeted for projects in an individual member’s district or state.

“If earmarks are included, that means you have to cut programs by $9 billion below the level you would otherwise have to cut them,” Obey said. “Members are going to have to decide if whether that’s what they came here to do.”

Ultimately, Obey’s argument to eliminate earmarks from the bill was rejected. Instead, each appropriations subcommittee was charged with making spending cuts that would get the bill down to the president’s spending target. From that process emerged the omnibus spending bill currently pending before Congress.

A summary of the bill is available at http://appropriations.house.gov/pdf/LHHSOmnibus.pdf. A chart of funding levels for certain U.S. Department of Education programs is available at https://all4ed.org/files/Fiscal08ProgramChart.pdf.

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