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Senate Funding Bill Getting a Bum Rap

Contrary to some claims, the omnibus appropriations bill the Senate will likely vote on soon is not “bloated” — it provides $27 billion less in discretionary funding for the current fiscal year (2011) than President Obama requested and is consistent with the severe funding cap that Senators Sessions and McCaskill proposed earlier this year.

Nearly three months into the fiscal year, Congress still has not enacted full-year appropriations for any government agency.  Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye has proposed an omnibus appropriation bill (that is, a bill that combines the 12 bills that fund all of the agencies into a single legislative vehicle) that would finally fulfill this most basic responsibility of Congress.

However, a number of Senate Republicans, including Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, are arguing that the Senate should put off final decisions about appropriations even longer.  Claiming that the proposed omnibus bill is irresponsible, they propose instead to extend the current stop-gap appropriation bill (the so-called “continuing resolution,” which freezes funding for almost all programs at 2010 levels) until February 18th in hopes that the new Congress will enact appropriations bills more to their liking.

Such a delay would be highly undesirable.  It is extremely difficult for federal agencies to plan and implement activities for a year when they don’t know how much funding they will receive for those activities until the year is nearly half over.

And it is truly galling that many of the same members of Congress who complain that the federal government is inefficient would then make it impossible for agencies to operate efficiently by refusing to give them a budget even close to on time.

Moreover, the claim that Chairman Inouye’s proposal is bloated is simply not true.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would provide $1.107 trillion in discretionary funding for 2011, or $27 billion below the amount President Obama proposed in his budget last February (including funding for Pell Grants on the discretionary side of the budget).

The funding level in the omnibus is consistent with the discretionary funding cap for 2011 proposed earlier this year by Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO).   Every Republican senator except Pat Roberts of Kansas (who did not vote) supported the Sessions-McCaskill proposal when it was last offered in June, yet some of those same senators now oppose an omnibus that is consistent with that sharply curtailed level.  Cutting far more deeply than this, as many Republican lawmakers pledge to do if full-year appropriations for 2011 are not enacted until next year, would truly harm a vast array of high-priority programs.

Some policymakers may have legitimate reservations about enacting the omnibus bill (although complaints about earmarks are vastly overblown — whatever their merits on policy grounds, they account for less than 1 percent of the total appropriated).  But the bill is fiscally responsible.  And any legitimate reservations have to be weighed against the harm that will be done if agencies have to continue operating for several more months without a real budget for this year.