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House, Senate Get High Marks for Commitment

September 16, 2011

Over the past year, this column has repeatedly talked about how Congress “kicked the can down the road” on various appropriations issues, rather than make decisions. This latest proposal from the House — funding FY 12 under a Continuing Resolution through November 18 — looks like more of the same. Except it isn’t. So far, the FY 12 process looks nothing like FY 11.

The most important difference is that Congress has agreed that FY 12 spending with be capped at $1.043 trillion. The bulk of the FY 11 delays were over the total level of spending for the year.

Second, the House and Senate did comparatively little committee work on the FY 11 appropriations bills. In anticipation of the 2010 election, the appropriations process was shut-down early.

This year, the House Appropriations Committee has passed 9 of the 12 appropriations bills and 6 have been passed by the full House. The Senate appropriations committee, which waited for this summer’s resolution of the total amount available to be spent … has managed to pass seven bills through committee. One has passed the Senate.

Third, when Continuing Resolutions became necessary in FY 11, each became a power struggle between the House and the Senate over spending cuts. In contrast, the House’s proposal for the initial FY 12 CR is a standstill agreement. Relative to its funding in FY 11, no program will be helped or hurt under the CR.

So, the House and the Senate get high marks for their commitment to the FY 12 appropriations process. The 7-week CR is a reasonable approach to buy time for a process that seems to be working.

What comes next? Over the next 6 weeks, House and Senate staffs will be meeting on all the appropriations bills, trying to forge compromise agreements that both Houses can live with. The goal is to produce an omnibus FY 12 bill — a single piece of legislation that contains the agreements/texts for all 12 appropriations bills.

If this can be accomplished, the entire government would be funded under appropriations bills and there would be no CR. If things come together as hoped, the appropriations committees will have legislation ready by late October or early November. Since it would be pre-conferenced, the House and Senate would pass the same bill and send it to the President for signature before the current CR runs out.

It would be a remarkable accomplishment to have all the appropriations bills completed.

A thousand different things could upset this plan. Notably, the deficit-reduction “super committee” has just started to meet. It is supposed to focus on FY 13 and beyond, but nothing prevents them from asking that all or part of the FY 12 appropriations process wait for the conclusion of their deliberations (late November) or for votes on their recommendations (December).

It is also not certain that the House and Senate can reach agreement on all of the appropriations bills. When House appropriations chairman Hal Rogers laid out the committee schedule for this year, he left Labor-HHS, State/Foreign Operations and Transportation/HUD for last — and those are the three bills his committee has not yet acted upon. He knew these were likely to be the toughest.

As both House and Senate have envisioned it (by dint of their scheduling it among the first four bills), the Agriculture-FDA appropriations bills is one of the easier ones to conference. The Alliance will be acting upon the assumption that the subcommittee staffs will be trying to formulate a compromise over the next month. Even if an omnibus bill covers only four to six appropriations bills, we would expect Ag-FDA to be among them … even while the rest of the government might still be funded by a CR.

Our position is clear: when House and Senate meet to discuss FDA’s appropriations, the Alliance will be urging adoption of the Senate’s $50 million increase for the agency.

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