Summer Federal Appropriations Update

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As we approach the dog days of summer, the federal appropriations process is finally heating up. This follows several months of being on hold as Congress tried to address the growing coronavirus pandemic, the staggering drop in unemployment, and cries for action regarding racial injustice and police brutality.

With Election Day less than four months away, several critical questions remain. Will Congress finish its consideration of all twelve appropriations bills before the September 30th fiscal year (FY) 2021 deadline? What are the chances of a continuing resolution and what length will it be? And what impact will the election results have on how the appropriation process plays out? We will consider these questions and more below.

What is happening in the House?

After months on hold because of the focus on coronavirus and police reform packages, the House is now pushing through their appropriations markups at lightning speed. The full Committee passed their FY 2021 302(b) subcommittee allocations last week along with five appropriations bills: Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-VA, Legislative Branch, and State-Foreign Operations. The Committee wrapped up their consideration and approval of the remaining seven bills this week: Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Energy-Water Development, Financial Services-General Government, Homeland Security, Labor-HHS-Education, Transportation-HUD.

Initial reports are saying that Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-VA, and State-Foreign Operations bills will be combined into a minibus package and considered on the floor late next week. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) indicated that he wants the House to approve all twelve bills on the floor by the end of July. However, the Homeland Security bill might be held back because of concerns from progressive Democrats about funding levels for customs and border protection and immigrations and customs enforcement.

It is worth noting that these bills will probably be passed mostly or entirely along party lines. Since the Senate must reach a 60-vote threshold to end debate on appropriations bills, whereas the House only needs a majority vote, the Senate has to forge bills that are more bipartisan. This means that these more partisan House bills are likely to sit and not be taken up by the upper chamber for serious consideration.

What is happening in the Senate?

Unlike in the House, crickets can be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Committee has held just two hearings since March, and both were on issues unrelated to the FY 2021 appropriations process.

It was reported several weeks ago that partisan disagreements on police reform and COVID-19 spending is to blame for the delay of Senate appropriation bill markups. Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), noting that offering amendments was a key concern for Democrats, said “There is bipartisan agreement that we need to address the COVID-19 pandemic. And if we want to truly address the issues of racial injustice that George Floyd’s tragic death has brought to the surface… we need to appropriate money for programs that advance these issues.” Committee Republicans, led by Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL), felt that these issues should be addressed outside of the appropriations process.

Markup notices for their appropriations bills were reportedly postponed due to these disagreements. While it is very likely that most of their bills are already drafted, we probably will not see any markups until the Committee leadership can agree to move forward in a bipartisan way.

What is going to happen next?

There is one thing that is all but guaranteed: there will be a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the federal government open past the September 30th deadline. Between the upcoming August recess and the desire of members to be home to campaign for competitive races, there are not a lot of congressional workdays left on the calendar.

This continuing resolution will likely be a short-term, stopgap solution just to get Congress through the FY 2021 deadline and election season. Although a specific date is hard to determine, it would likely extend current federal funding levels to at least early to mid-December.

The election outcome is also likely to influence how the federal appropriations wraps up. History tells us that during an election year, lawmakers are likely to hold an average of seven appropriations bills over until the next calendar year. They say to the victor goes the spoils – as well as the incentive to shape the final bills once the winning party takes control. If the Democrats win the presidency and/or the Senate, we can certainly expect them to punt the bills into 2021 when they will have more influence over the process.  

Stay tuned to eRegions, Transportation Thursdays and the Regions Lead blog for the latest federal appropriations updates.

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