The Heavy-Handed House Spending Bill

In the early hours of Feb. 19, the House passed a continuing resolution (CR) that is intended to keep government running for the remainder of the fiscal year. The bill contains not only drastic spending cuts, but would also implement a series of funding restrictions that would block the federal government from carrying out certain policies. While President Obama has said he will veto the legislation if it reaches his desk, it sets an unconstructive tone for Congress with provisions that would adversely impact people in need, undermine job growth, and seriously impair the ability of government to protect the public.

Funding for the operations of the federal government runs out on March 4, when the current CR expires. Without congressional action, many government functions, such as operation of the National Parks, would cease until new funding is approved. Providing funding for the rest of the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, 2010, the House CR contains some $65 billion in cuts from the previous year's (FY 2010) non-security discretionary spending, an almost 14 percent reduction. The cuts would affect almost every major federal agency (except the Defense Department, which would see a modest increase), resulting in net spending cuts of roughly $61 billion.

Without holding any hearings on their cuts, Republicans quickly assembled a bill that would reduce funding for hundreds of important federal programs, in a bid to reach a target of $100 billion in cuts (from the baseline of Obama's FY 2011 budget request, which was never enacted). Initially, House Republican leadership introduced a version of the CR with about $74 billion in cuts, but leadership was forced to capitulate to House Republican freshmen who demanded an additional $26 billion in cuts, living up to a pledge to cut spending to FY 2008 levels.

The Transportation Department budget would be subjected to particularly egregious cuts. High-speed rail funding would be completely eliminated, as would two Federal Highway Administration programs. In all, eight Transportation Department programs would see their budgets go to zero. The Department of Agriculture would lose funding for 17 programs, and 24 programs would be cut from the Department of Interior.

The Center for National and Community Service (home of AmeriCorps) would see an almost 90 percent cut, with the intent of eliminating AmeriCorps; public housing capital funds would get cut by 42 percent; Pell Grants by 15 percent; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 20 percent; and international disaster assistance would be cut almost in half. Even funding for the proposed Eisenhower Memorial near the National Mall would be reduced under the Republican proposal. Meanwhile, the Defense Department budget would see an almost two percent bump.

The magnitude of the cuts is masked by the fact that all of them would be enacted over the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. With such little time left in the year, the effect of the budget cuts is effectively doubled; instead of having a full year to absorb the budget reductions, agencies would have only half a year to cram in the cuts. Because of this, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that the CR would have the effect of a 24 percent cut for non-security discretionary spending.

It is also striking that the House bill would concentrate significant cuts in discretionary spending, when most budget experts acknowledge that the nation's serious long-term budget problems stem from a combination of health care costs and inadequate revenue. Discretionary spending is the smallest share of federal spending, yet is taking the largest cuts under this plan. Moreover, the cuts are targeted to only about half of discretionary spending since defense spending would be increased.

All of the spending reductions would mean drastic changes in the way the federal government protects the public, provides a vital safety net for families hit by the recession, and invests in the economy. Additionally, reductions in federal spending of this magnitude would cripple the nascent recovery. Not only would the federal government have to drastically reduce payments to contractors, but furloughs of federal employees would also be likely. Economists estimate that as many as a million jobs could be lost because of the Republican budget. Passing such a budget would certainly have a pernicious effect on the economy.

In addition to the budget cuts, the House Republican spending bill also includes a great number of policy provisions that would prevent the federal government from carrying out existing programs and policies. Some of these “riders” were included in the original proposal released on Friday, Feb. 11. Some of these provisions include:

  • Barring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from creating rules addressing greenhouse gases from stationary sources
  • Stopping the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from terminating the Nevada-based Yucca Mountain license review without due cause
  • Prohibiting the Bureau of Land Management from implementing Department of Interior Secretarial Order 3310, which was issued in December 2010 and creates a new Wild Lands classification for public lands
  • Restricting Recovery Act funds for signs and other announcements that indicate Recovery Act funds were used in a program or project
  • Limiting speech and activities under international family planning grants
  • Limiting the amount of funding the Federal Reserve may give to the fledgling Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection to help it enforce the new financial reform law.

During debate on the CR, lawmakers added some 45 additional restrictions to how federal funds can be used. Nine separate amendments prohibit the federal government from spending any money to enact health care reform, one amendment expands a prohibition in the base bill to prohibit use of funds for the health care and climate change “czars” to include all White House "czars," one restricts funding to the Federal Communications Commission for enacting net neutrality rules, one stops payment on legal fees to citizens and groups who sue the government, another prohibits any federal funding to Planned Parenthood, and one denies funding for the Presidential Election Campaign fund, effectively killing public financing for presidential elections.

There are some extremely specific restrictions imposed through these amendments. (Some of these are discussed in greater detail in another Watcher article about environmental riders.) For example, one amendment would prohibit EPA from implementing or enforcing a Sept. 9, 2010, rule that limits the levels of mercury in cement. Another would restrict funds to move forward with a rule that would eliminate surface mining operations within 100 feet of a stream.

Many of these restrictions have been requested by industries that would benefit from them. Most of these policy provisions, which do not save the government any money, are back-door efforts to pass controversial laws under the guise of spending reductions. Without holding any hearings and passing policy provisions in the dead of night, House Republicans contradicted their claims of embracing openness and transparency in the legislative process.

Few of these provisions are likely to be included in the Senate version of the CR. However, the upper chamber could decide to keep a handful of the Republican budget items in an effort to reach a compromise with the House, putting many vital government programs at risk and hindering the ability of the executive branch to protect the public and help those in need.

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