Congress' Unfinished Business

Congress left for the Thanksgiving break after passing less than half of the 2004 appropriations bills that fund government.

Even though the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2003, the only finished appropriations bills are Defense, Military Construction, Homeland Security, Legislative Branch, Interior, and Energy and Water. There are 7 remaining bills - Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-State, District of Columbia, Labor-HHS, Veteran's Affairs and HUD, Transportation-Treasury, and Foreign Operations. All of the government agencies and departments that receive their funding from those 7 remaining appropriations bills are operating at 2003 funding levels as a result of the latest of 6 continuing resolutions running through Jan. 31, 2004. Operating under continuing resolutions at last year's funding level makes it extremely difficult for agencies to plan, schedule raises, or create new initiatives that were not funded in 2003.

The remaining seven appropriations have been wrapped together, along with a lot of other provisions, into an "omnibus" bill. The conference report of the mammoth omnibus bill, H.R. 2673, filed in the House on Nov. 25, includes approximately $328 billion in discretionary spending, and $490 billion in spending for mandatory programs.

Senate Majority Leader Frist (R-TN) had hoped for a Senate vote on the bill before members left on Nov. 25 or in a special session early in December. However, many Democrats and Republicans opposed the vote, citing numerous problems in the bill. The House may vote on the bill when it returns for a single day on Dec. 8. A December vote is possible for the Senate, but unlikely. Given the strength of Democratic objections to the bill and the fact that it is not amendable, it is possible no vote will occur even in January when the Senate returns, and that it will need to be sent back to conference. Some of the issues of concern include:

  • A provision blocking the Labor Department's proposed rule on overtime was dropped from the bill because of the threat of a White House veto;
  • A competitive sourcing initiative by the administration was included that would allow more competition by the private sector for federal jobs, denying appeals to federal employees who lose competitive bids and eliminating the requirement that cost savings from outsourcing be shown;
  • Numerous earmarks for state and district projects are included;
  • A provision raising the cap that limits expansion of stations watched by 35 percent of the nation's viewers to 39 percent was included;
  • A provision allowing firearms retailers to destroy documents required for gun sales after 25 hours instead of after 90 days;
  • The creation of a school voucher program in the District of Columbia; and
  • Continuation of the 40 year old ban on travel to Cuba.

The 2004 appropriations overall will exceed the limit on appropriations agreed to in the budget resolution by about $4.6 billion. Offsets included in the omnibus bill are "taking back" $1.8 billion in unspent defense funds, and an across-the-board 0.6 percent cut to all other programs for another $2.8 billion in savings.

Besides failing to accomplish its obligation to debate and pass 7 appropriations bills before the beginning of the fiscal year, Congress also failed to:

  • Address the plight of those who have been unemployed for a long time, of which will lose their state unemployment compensation benefits at the rate of 80,000 to 90,000 each week in Jan. 2003, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities;
  • Pass a child tax credit for the low-income working families who were left out of the 2003 tax cut bill. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there were 8.1 million taxpayers left out;
  • Do anything about the expiration of the moratorium on taxing the provision of Internet services. While the ban has expired, it is unlikely that there will be a stampede to impose taxes, since most state legislatures are not in session.

The omnibus appropriations bill is a sign of the inability of Congress to accomplish even its most pressing tasks -- appropriating the funds that run the government. Rather than each relevant subcommittee working on each appropriations bill, using its knowledge about the appropriations area and exerting its oversight, omnibus bills are subject to a vote on legislations that has attractive earmarks, negotiations about policy that occur behind closed doors without real debate, and provisions that have nothing to do with funding government. Furthermore, while it is likely that every member of Congress could find something to hate in the bill, the vote is on the whole bill, and voting against it is voting against funding government, making for a difficult decision. Finally, the sheer quantity of the bill makes it difficult to even know what provisions included. In this case, the delay until December or January may at least guarantee that the contents of the bill will have been read and understood.

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