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Congressional budget process concerns prompt measures for reform

Jim Fahey
Director of Government Relations
APWA’s Washington Office

In Washington, summer marks the time when annual appropriations bills make their way through the legislative process toward enactment before the September 30th deadline, the last day of the federal fiscal year. Already, the House of Representatives has passed the U.S. Department of Transportation appropriations, a bill that routinely is among the first to be considered, and a bill funding the Environmental Protection Agency’s programs began moving late May.

Despite the fact that these and several other measures are on the move, concerns have been voiced this year that the appropriations process could turn out to be a rerun of last year’s end-of-the-session scramble to enact annual funding bills, which resulted in a series of continuing resolutions before the adoption of a multi-billion dollar omnibus bill. A compressed legislative calendar due to an election year only adds to the credibility of these concerns.

While formulating and approving spending packages rarely occurs without some degree of struggle, in recent years the process in Washington has been characterized by an increasing inability to pass by the end of the fiscal year all of the 13 appropriations bills that fund the federal government. The tight spending caps required under the 1997 Balanced Budget Act have rendered the appropriations process politically challenging, as shrinking funding allocations to committees make proposing veto-proof bills in many cases nearly impossible. It has been difficult for some bills to muster enough support for simple passage in either chamber. The government shutdown in 1995 and omnibus spending bills that have broken spending caps are bitter reminders to many lawmakers of the difficulties inherent in the current system.

Frustration with the process, by budget hawks concerned with controlling spending and by others worried about lack of control over the process itself, has generated interest in some kind of budgetary reform. In the House, a proposal was introduced in late May that would have changed the rules and, as its opponents argued, tipped the balance of power too much in favor of the executive branch.

Called the Comprehensive Budget Process Reform Act of 2000, the measure would have involved the President earlier in the congressional budget process by establishing a budget resolution requiring his signature and having the force of law. Currently, each chamber of Congress passes its own budget resolution that serves as a budget blueprint and has no force of law. By involving the President early, the bill’s proponents argued, Congress could avert the politically damaging stalemates at the end of the fiscal year.

When it came to the floor, the measure failed, falling short of passage by a significant margin. The measure prompted concerns from a number of lawmakers, including Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who saw in the proposal a serious threat to the future of public works infrastructure funding. The bill, he argued, did not recognize the link between transportation spending and trust fund receipts, as established in TEA-21 and AIR-21, the surface transportation and aviation acts, respectively, and jeopardized their reauthorization. His concern was that the reform strengthened a budget process that did not recognize the unique nature of the transportation trust funds, that is as funding mechanisms with revenue streams dedicated to specific purposes.

For now, the issue appears settled in the House. On the Senate side, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) has been advocating a biennial budgeting process, but it is not yet certain whether or not such a measure will be taken up. During floor debate on the Budget Process Reform Act, the House voted to reject such a change.

The budget process debate, which is likely to continue in some form or another for some time, will certainly involve more discussions on the relationship of federal public works infrastructure funding to the budgeting and appropriations process. Meanwhile, as the appropriations process proceeds, most forecasters are predicting another hectic September.

For more information, contact Jim Fahey at 202-408-9541 or jfahey@apwa.net.