This Week in Appropriations: VA Research Boosted; Spending Allocations Debated
House appropriators kicked off the Congressional appropriations cycle for FY 2018, advancing the first spending bill (out of twelve) for the year: Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. The House Appropriations Committee also debated the lack of funding allocations for spending bills, which complicates the funding process with less than two months remaining before the August recess.
On Thursday, House Appropriations Committee approved the Milcon bill on a unanimous voice vote, following subcommittee approval earlier in the week. Overall, the bill provides a $6 billion increase in discretionary spending above FY 2017 levels. On the science front, appropriators granted $698.2 million to the VA Medical & Prosthetic Research account, a 3.7 percent increase above FY 2017 levels, thus refuting the cuts sought by the Administration (see table; the Administration had also proposed an increase in research support dollars counted as R&D). Language in the accompanying report directs $40 million to the National Center for PTSD, double the request. Among other items, the Committee directs VA to seek out public-private partnerships with research universities, teaching hospitals, and other partners to address suicide prevention, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and substance abuse. Appropriators also directed VA to emphasize or expand research on prosthetics for female veterans, respiratory disease, and exoskeleton technology for rehabilitation, among other items. The bill’s next stop is the House floor.
Spending Bill Allocations Debated
The Committee also debated the current lack of topline allocations for other spending bills this year, with Democrats highly critical. Under normal practice, Appropriations Committee leadership allocates spending limits for all twelve appropriations bills before those bills are written (see the budget process explainer for more). These limits, dubbed “302(b)” allocations, determine the size of each spending bill, and thus influence how much appropriators can give to agencies within each bill. But without an overall agreed-upon discretionary spending target, Appropriations Chair Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) has opted to approach the situation on something of an ad-hoc basis, providing “interim” allocations one at a time as each bill moves forward in the queue.
That means that when the Appropriations Committee met to approve the Milcon bill, they also approved the allocation for that bill, but only that bill. That allocation, which represented a $6 billion increase above FY 2017 levels as mentioned above, was adopted along partisan lines, 29-22.
One challenge in this – and the problem for Democrats – is that in FY 2018, the most recent spending deal runs out, and spending is required by law to drop back to sequestration levels (see inflation-adjusted graph at right). This means about a $5 billion reduction in discretionary spending overall, under current law. If Congress has $5 billion less to spend this year, and the Milcon bill is $6 billion larger, then that could put the squeeze on everything else, including science and technology. House Democrats took the opportunity Thursday to point out the problems with this math and warn against the cuts that might have to happen elsewhere to make the numbers balance. Areas of concern raised by Democrats included programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and NASA – many of which were slated for cutbacks in the Administration’s budget.
One way out could be yet another spending deal to raise the defense and nondefense caps, a prospect favored by Democrats and many Republicans. While the Trump Administration has proposed deep cuts to nondefense discretionary spending to allow a defense increase, that approach has been widely rejected, if for no other reason than it would require the politically impossible hurdle of 60 votes in the Senate. During a Thursday budget hearing, for instance, House Appropriator Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) told Defense Secretary James Mattis, “Most if not all of us agree that the base on defense must go up…but the funding on military cannot be obtained on the back of nondefense discretionary spending. I think all of us here in this room understand that. It’s not going to work. We need a budget agreement. We need the Administration, we need the Senate, the House, to come to a workable number that we can agree to, to get rid of the sequestration and the Budget Control Act and come up with realistic numbers, both on the discretionary side and the non-discretionary side. We need to talk about the entire budget, not just discretionary spending.”
Other Republicans have made similar remarks, and even the House Freedom Caucus, noted spending hawks, have said they would accept a deal to increase discretionary spending if it came with other policy concessions.
Quote of the Week
“It’s the middle of June, we still have no budget resolution, no topline spending number, and the debt limit is rapidly approaching, and we have no full list of subcommittee allocations. Marking up just one bill at a time without a full list of allocations leaves us effectively working in the dark.” – Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA)