Lawmakers look for ways to add to annual spending bills

Lawmakers look for ways to add to annual spending bills
© Bonnie Cash

Congressional appropriators are seeking to pad 2021 spending levels through off-book accounts in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which is putting unprecedented pressure on lawmakers to help the nation get through a health and economic crisis.
The approach would likely push some spending on health and veterans programs into emergency funds, which would allow Congress to technically stick to a budget caps deal negotiated last summer while still increasing spending levels by as much as $11 billion.

Both chambers have indicated that they are open to using a budget gimmick to open the doors to additional spending that involves the Veterans Affairs (VA) Mission Act.

The law, which gives veterans a wider array of health care choices, used to be paid for through mandatory spending, which falls outside the budget.
In recent years, however, VA Mission Act spending has been moved back under the annual caps for discretionary spending, despite protests from Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyFinger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse MORE (D-Vt.).
If the spending is again moved outside the discretionary cap, it would free up $11 billion for other spending priorities.
“There is strong and growing support for declaring rapidly rising VA costs an emergency. That is the key to unlocking the process,” the GOP aide said.


Democrats are also considering whether more health funding should be taken off-book given the new realities created by the pandemic.
Last week, Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeBipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to limit further expansion of 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Democrats sidestep budget deal by seeking 0B in emergency spending Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (Okla.), the top Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education, expressed interest in another approach to padding spending: off-book health accounts to ensure a steady flow of funding for pandemic preparedness.
The accounts would function similarly to Overseas Contingency Operations funds, which were implemented after 9/11 to fund the war on terror and don’t count toward budgetary caps. Budget watchers frequently refer to the accounts as slush funds and budget gimmicks.
“We’re not trying to open up the budget or crack the budget caps,” he said at a hearing on the coronavirus, but still said that he was “very intrigued about the idea.”

The pandemic has thrown a wrench into the appropriations schedule — and life in Congress in general.

“There’s so much uncertainty in the outlook, and that goes well beyond the appropriations process,” said one House Democratic aide.

The next order of business is expected to be a new coronavirus relief package, though the two parties are far apart on its details.

Democrats unveiled a new $3 trillion package on Tuesday, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse chairman asks CDC director to testify on reopening schools during pandemic Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Pelosi says House won't cave to Senate on worker COVID-19 protections MORE (R-Ky.) dismissed the proposal and said there was no “urgency” in getting the next package signed into law.


But Republicans are working on their own proposal, and the Congress is broadly expected to approve a new coronavirus relief package at some point.

Once they reach a deal and are able to pass that legislation, they are expected to turn to passing the annual spending bills.

Work on the appropriations process is further complicated by the House being absent from Washington during the coronavirus crisis. With cases continuing to rise in Washington, D.C., it’s not entirely clear when the lower chamber will return full time.
The House is still working on a remote system of voting, calling into question whether and how to mark up bills in subcommittee and committee meetings.
“I don’t know what room in the Capitol fits a 53-member appropriations markup with social distancing. It’s a logistical problem,” the Democratic aide said.
Despite the difficulties, Democratic House appropriators have begun crafting their bills. Democrats are expected to pass those bills through committee and the House on party lines before they begin to negotiate with Republicans.
In the Senate, however, appropriators have yet to divvy up the overall spending among the 12 bills.
“The first order of business is finding a bipartisan path forward on allocations.  Until we do, all scheduling is tentative,” said a GOP Senate aide.
Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline for getting this year’s spending bills to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE. If they miss it, they will have to approve a stopgap measure to prevent a government shutdown — a tool that lawmakers have generally had to rely on in recent years.

Under a two-year budget deal reached in July, lawmakers have already set the broad terms for defense and nondefense spending. Both areas were set to rise by $2.5 billion compared to last year.

Some of the obstacles that led to delays and bitter political fights in previous years also may be simpler this year. In December, the House and Senate reached a deal on a path forward, for example, on funding for Trump’s border wall and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds.