BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The House Appropriations Committee has begun to consider its 12 appropriations bills to fund the government in fiscal year 2018, but without first unveiling or approving a plan to allocate total appropriations among the 12 bills. Thus, the committee is considering individual bills without first setting its overall priorities and debating how funding for one bill affects the funding available for the others — a particularly important issue given that overall funding under the current austere annual caps falls short of meeting the full range of national needs.
Under the Congressional Budget Act, the annual congressional budget resolution sets a total for appropriated funding for the next fiscal year. That total is constrained by the multi-year caps of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which are further reduced by sequestration. Once the budget resolution sets a total, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are required to subdivide that total among the 12 regular appropriations bills. (These subdivisions are the “302(b) allocations,” named after the Budget Act’s relevant section.)
The allocations set priorities for government funding. They determine, for instance, how much the appropriations bill for the Department of State and foreign assistance will receive, as compared to that for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments and related agencies; and that for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments and related agencies; and that for homeland security; and that for energy and water development; and the other seven bills. Each of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees sets more specific priorities within the bill under its jurisdiction.
With no congressional action so far on a 2018 budget resolution, House Appropriations Committee leaders decided to begin writing their 2018 appropriations bills anyway. Even without a budget resolution, however, nothing prevents the committee from approving allocations across the 12 bills to guide its actions and make its priorities clear to its members and the public.
Unfortunately, the committee is proceeding without taking this logical first step; it hasn’t announced the total from which it’s working, or how it’s allocating that total among the 12 bills. In its June 15 session to finalize the bill for Military Construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the committee adopted an “allocation” only for that bill — as it did in a similar situation last year.
The transparency that would come with a full set of allocations is especially important this year, as lawmakers face difficult decisions on tradeoffs. The overall BCA caps for 2018 fall by about $3 billion for non-defense programs and $2 billion for defense compared to the 2017 levels, even before adjusting for inflation. The Military Construction and Veterans bill that the committee approved provides increases of roughly $3.9 billion for non-defense programs and $1.9 billion for defense, thereby requiring offsetting cuts in other bills to stay within the current caps. A full set of allocations would show how the committee plans to approach those tradeoffs.
Committee leaders may be reluctant to produce allocations because they’d likely show some bills receiving seriously inadequate funding. But that’s even more reason to show them. It would demonstrate the unacceptable tradeoffs that the current caps require, highlighting the need for President Trump and Congress to provide relief from sequestration cuts by raising the caps — as policymakers have done, for defense and non-defense programs alike, on a bipartisan basis for every previous year in which sequestration has been in effect.