Debt-ceiling agreement providing little help to congressional appropriators

Congress is on track to be months late in funding the federal government, despite a debt-ceiling deal that provides appropriators with an overall spending level for 2012, aides and lobbyists said.

Part of the problem is the deficit supercommittee set up by the deal. Congressional leaders may want to wait until after its work has been put before Congress in December before moving forward with spending bills.

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Failure to pass 12 separate appropriations bills by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 has become a bad habit Congress can’t break. Because of this, federal departments are unable to plan effectively or start new initiatives when funding is provided under temporary bills.

Fiscal 2011 funding was not agreed upon until April. You have to go back to fiscal 2006 to find a time when Congress passed all the separate, detailed appropriations bills for agencies and even then multiple continuing resolutions had to be used to extend the deadline.

This year, the House has passed six of 12 bills and moved nine through the Appropriations Committee. The Senate has passed one bill through committee, for military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Aides say no decisions have been made on how to proceed, but at least one continuing resolution is inevitable. A likely target is a continuing resolution that runs through Thanksgiving.

Appropriators are holding out hope that some of the bills can be done and want to spend as much of September as possible trying to pass them before bowing to a continuing resolution.

"We would like to see as much progress as possible on the FY2012 bills before tripping into CR mode," an aide said.

The debt-ceiling deal set a top-line spending level of $1.043 trillion for the year, a $7 billion cut from this year.

Usually the top-line number is the big bone of contention between Republicans and Democrats.

The House has been passing bills based on a $1.019 spending level set by the House GOP budget. The spending measures approved by the House include dozens of policy riders that have to be resolved; House Republicans are especially keen on riders that would roll back environmental regulations.

The debt deal put a specific cap on security spending, setting up another battle over how much to lower defense spending and foreign aid—also under the security umbrella – from the House appropriations bill.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said all the outstanding differences suggest Congress may not conclude its work until early 2012.

“Although appropriators may want to move their bills in regular order, and plan to do so as much as they possibly can, the fact is they are out of time,” said Juliane Sullivan, senior policy adviser at the law firm Akin, Gump and former policy director for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). She predicted a quick “pivot” to a temporary continuing resolution once Congress returns after Labor Day.

The most likely scenario is that the House and Senate appropriations committees complete drafting their separate bills and then start to negotiate out the differences once a temporary funding bill is passed.

Appropriations aides say Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chairmen of the House and Senate spending panels, strongly prefer to move individual bills. The two want leadership to move the individual bills to conference committee throughout the fall so that agency needs can be targeted and waste can be ferreted out.

Whether the end result is separate bills or a big, sloppy package will depend on whether the Senate can pass, with 60 votes, any of the bills.

Filibusters in the Senate would push the process toward an omnibus package and away from individual bills, aides said.

“Floor consideration is uncertain and frankly unlikely,” Sullivan said.

Sources were divided about how much the deficit supercommittee set up by the debt-ceiling deal will slow down the process.

The supercommittee is charged with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts or automatic cuts to discretionary spending—the subject of the appropriations process-- are triggered in 2013.

Most appropriators want to see the committee succeed in tackling entitlement and tax reform because this will take pressure off agency budgets.

“Basically, I would not expect the sun to set on the appropriations process prior to an understanding of what will happen with the supercommittee,” Sullivan argued.

Ellis said that “the appropriators know there may be future changes, so it does make it less likely to go out on a limb.” Ellis and others said the supercommittee could impose lower discretionary caps if it is unable to find $1.2 trillion in savings from entitlements or by raising revenue.

Some aides said however that appropriators do not want to wait and there is actually little sense in doing so.

They said it would be unlikely that the supercommittee cuts discretionary spending since that was already lowered by $917 billion in the debt-ceiling deal. Second, if the supercommittee does fail and appropriations are trimmed as a result, there is little that can be done in the FY 2012 bills to soften the blow.

If there was not a 2012 cap, one aide said, appropriators could be motivated to move money toward agencies that the supercommittee is cutting. The existence of the 2012 cap means they do not have the room to maneuver.