Local Officials Continue to Advocate for Housing and Transportation Funding

August 5, 2013

By Leslie Wollack and Michael Wallace

Despite the often-stated desire to return to regular order, Members of Congress went home last week for their August recess without having made much progress on any of the 12 annual appropriations bills. Congress has not been able to bring any of the individual spending bills to a joint conference committee, and only nine legislative days now remain before the end of the FY 2013 fiscal year on September 30, when the current federal spending bill expires.

In the clearest sign yet that Congress will have to again resort to passing a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government funded next year, the House and Senate were both unsuccessful in attempts to approve the respective versions of the FY 2014 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill (T-HUD) in the final week before recess.

Although the House and Senate T-HUD bills were both debated last week, the differences between the two versions was stark.  The Senate T-HUD bill allocated nearly $10 billion more in overall federal funding than the House T-HUD bill, and therefore could protect funding for local priorities.  Among the differences between the two bills, the Senate T-HUD bill maintained Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding at $3 billion, while the House T-HUD bill slashed CDBG in half, to $1.6 billion.  Other comparisons are highlighted in the following chart:

Local Priorities in the FY2014 T-HUD Bill   Senate Bill   House Bill 
 Tenant-Based Section 8 Rental Assistance  $19.6 billion   $18.6 billion 
 Project-Based Section 8 Rental Assistance  $10.8 billion  $9.5 billion
 Community Development Block Grants   $3 billion  $1.6 billion
 HOME Investment Partnership Program  $1 billion  $700 million
 Homeless Assistance Grants   $2.3 billion  $2.1 billion
 TIGER Grants   $550 million         0
 Transit New Starts   $1.94 billion  $1.82 billion
 Amtrak  $1.45 billion  $1.05 billion
 Bridge Repair Grant Program   $500 million         0

In Congress’ last week of session before the August recess, NLC and many state municipal leagues worked together with local officials to let their representatives in Washington know how critical the housing and transportation programs contained in the  T-HUD bill are to local communities.   The T-HUD appropriations bill funds many direct formula and competitive grant programs for local governments, including the largest grant program for local governments, the CDBG program.  

NLC’s advocacy goal for the two bills was to place the one more favorable for local priorities in the best possible position heading into what will be final House/Senate spending negotiations later this year.  To do this, NLC urged lawmakers to vote YES on the “Senate T-HUD bill” and to vote NO on the “House T-HUD bill”.  We were successful in the House, but not in the Senate. 

The House leadership determined that there was a lack of support to pass the House T-HUD bill.  The combined opposition of Democrats and Republicans unhappy with the austere spending caps approved by the House Budget Committee, and the small cadre of representatives that wanted even deeper spending cuts were enough to defeat the bill.   Rather than allow the House T-HUD bill to fail by recorded vote, the bill has been pulled from further consideration.  During debate, representatives from both parties expressed concerns over the loss of federal funds for local programs such as CDBG, low-income housing, Amtrak and transit grants to communities across the country, and quoted the communications they received from local officials.

The Senate was unable to muster the support of 60 Senators required to end debate on the bill.  Although this is procedurally different from what occurred in the House, the outcomes are similar in that the T-HUD bills are both stalled indefinitely.

Although Congress will most likely be unable to address funding for local priorities under regular order, the advocacy of local officials accomplished a number of things.  For one, dozens of Senators and Representatives in both parties took to the floor to speak in favor of funding for CDBG. More importantly, local officials were instrumental in changing the terms of the debate.  As local officials weighed in on the T-HUD bills over the last few weeks, they exposed the weaknesses of the debate in Congress over budgets and spending, which have been largely conceptual and ideological, by confronting Members of Congress with the real impacts of federal spending decisions on communities across the country. 

As lawmakers return home during their August recess, NLC members are encouraged to continue to reinforce the importance of federal funds for programs such as CDBG, low-income housing, transit grants and funds for Amtrak to their elected officials.