Passing an Appropriations Bill: A Must for the Lame Duck Session

Before the 113th Congress can conclude in late December, it will have to pass an appropriation bill that funds the government for all or part of 2015, or face a possible government shutdown as early as December 12 after the current continuing resolution (CR) expires. Congress has several options to ensure that the government remains open into next year:

  • An omnibus appropriations bill that would fund the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2015,
  • A CR that also would fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year, or
  • A short term CR that would fund the government into early 2015.

Of these options, an omnibus appropriations bill would be the most favorable to cities.

The $1.014 trillion discretionary spending package would combine all 12 appropriations bills into a single "omnibus bill" with funding that reflects congressional and Administration priorities, many of which are favorable to cities. In contrast, the full year CR would extend current funding levels for another year without consideration for congressional or Administration priorities. It also would be very difficult for Congress to shift funds from one account to another or to nondefense discretionary programs that are important to cities, since CRs are generally a last resort passed when Congress cannot come to an agreement over funding. Though certainly not the worst situation, it would provide Congress with very little if any flexibility and virtually no chance of increasing funding for specific programs.

The least desirable approach would be a short term CR that would maintain current spending levels into the first few months of the 114th Congress. This would give a new Congress an opening to reduce funding for programs that are important to cities. The current House Majority's budget plan calls for cuts in nondefense discretionary programs important to cities by $791 billion over ten years. Programs that would be affected include economic and workforce development, ones to address natural and man-made disasters, and transportation initiatives.

The good news is that House and Senate appropriators have directed their staffs to jointly develop a fiscal 2015 omnibus appropriations bill that could be adopted by the end of the year if that is the ultimate will of the House and Senate leadership. The likely new Senate majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has indicated that he would like to pass a fiscal year 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill before the 113th Congress ends and the 114th Congress convenes. Even better, both the House and Senate agree on the top number: $1.014 trillion. Congressional staff are very close to finalizing a spending agreement that is supportive of most important nondefense discretionary programs like education, health, public safety, and community and economic development.

However, what is still unknown is how the House and Senate Republican caucuses will react to such a plan, and whether they will insist on a short term CR that enables the 114th Congress to establish government spending for the final six months of the year.

Even if Congress can agree on an omnibus appropriations bill, the potential for difficulties now or in the very near future still exists. Though leadership has said they want a clean bill, will their rank and file demand that any appropriations bill passed must include policy riders that would undermine the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Financial Services Act, Environmental Protection Agencies' recent regulations to address climate change, or the White House's push for immigration reform? Such requirements would put any agreement in jeopardy and possibly lead to a government shutdown, or the passage of a short term CR. But even if this does not occur, there are likely to be very serious problems for the appropriations process next year, since mandatory spending for Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs are projected to grow from $2.32 trillion this fiscal year to $3.74 trillion in 2024, a 61 percent spending expansion over ten years, that dwarfs the 16 percent growth currently planned for discretionary spending.

Stay tuned: a smooth ride during the current lame duck session may belie future funding fights the will pale beside anything that we have seen in the past.