FY 2018 Budget Work Stymied by White House, Lawmakers Say

By Nancy Ognanovich

House and Senate appropriators’ work on the next fiscal year’s spending priorities is partly on hold after the White House ordered department and agency heads not to testify in detail on the controversial budget blueprint that the administration recently sent to Congress.

The House Appropriations Committee postponed hearings on the budget plan for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1. The hearings were set for March 21 on the National Institutes of Health and for March 22 on the Department of Education.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney warned department and agency heads in a March 17 memo that their ability to discuss their agency budgets in front of any congressional committee would be limited at this time.

“Until OMB releases the full FY 2018 budget, all public comments of any sort should be limited to the information contained in the budget blueprint calling for your agency,” Mulvaney said in a March 17 memo sent when the blueprint was released. “This includes highlights of major administration initiatives and other proposals. Accordingly, it is critically important that you not make commitments about specific programs if they are not expressly mentioned in the budget blueprint. Similarly, you should not address account-level details. Comments on such specifics need to wait until the release of the full budget. Agency officials appearing as witnesses in authorization, appropriations, or oversight hearings should defer any questions related to the full budget until after the budget is released.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee still planned to hold a hearing early March 22 with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the budget increases President Donald Trump has proposed for the Pentagon. But an aide to the committee said the session now is more likely to focus on the fiscal year 2017 supplemental request of $25 billion that Trump wants Congress to pass this spring.

The delays suggest real work on the 2018 discretionary spending budget may not begin until May, when the administration is expected to send Congress a more complete budget that also includes recommendations on mandatory spending and tax policy. That scenario would put appropriators’ work about two months behind their regular schedule. Also contributing to the delays is appropriators’ work on the 11 unfinished bills for fiscal 2017. If they aren’t signed into law by the time a continuing resolution expires April 28, current federal government monies will lapse, unless another stopgap measure is passed.

Education, NIH Hearings Postponed

House Appropriations had scheduled two FY18 budget hearings for the week of March 20 and three more for the week of March 28. But the first two hearings at the Labor, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee were postponed shortly after they were announced.

The committee first postponed the March 22 hearing where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was scheduled to testify on the Education budget, which is slated for a 14 percent cut under Trump’s plan. A spokeswoman didn’t say when the session would be rescheduled.

The next hearing postponed was one planned for March 21 with Dr. Francis Collins and other top officials at the National Institutes of Health to discuss the agency’s budget, which Trump has proposed to cut by $5.8 billion, or about 19 percent of its current $30.3 billion discretionary budget.

House Appropriations ranking member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Labor-HHS ranking member Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) criticized Republicans’ decision to yield to what they called White House pressure.

“Since last Thursday, when President Trump proposed staggering cuts to domestic services and investments, the administration has pulled the plug on scheduled Appropriations hearings on the NIH and the Department of Education,” the lawmakers said in a March 20 statement. “The administration clearly lacks the ability to defend these unjustifiable proposals—including slashing $6 billion from medical research and $9 billion from our nation’s education system—and is even preventing the nation’s leading scientists from testifying before Congress about the impact of these cuts.”

The overall budget plan calls for $54 billion in cuts from domestic programs next year—an amount that even Republicans on the panel said is unrealistic.

“Members of Congress and the American public deserve to know just how destructive these cuts to the budget will be and we must hear directly from the agencies,” the Democrats said. “The administration cannot be allowed to run and hide because it is unable to explain a budget that would harm American workers and families.”

House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) have kept their comments on the budget to a minimum. Some other Republicans have criticized the plan, including Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Labor-HHS subcommittee, who said it’s likely that Congress will ignore many of deep cuts Trump proposed. He also defended federal investment in early child education programs at a March 16 hearing, saying programs such as Head Start help to ensure children from underserved communities have the same opportunities as others.

“Our nation’s future workforce depends on investments we choose to make in these children today,” Cole said.

More Hearings at Risk?

The pace of work stands in sharp contrast to the action last year, when House Appropriations completed 20 hearings on the FY17 budget during one week shortly after the budget’s release.

The pace also raises questions about how much work appropriators can get done this spring and how it will affect the outlook for having a spending plan in place by next fall.

In the short term, it’s uncertain whether Cole’s subcommittee will follow through with plans for a March 28 hearing on the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Trump proposed to “zero out” in his budget.

Also uncertain is whether the panel still will hold a planned March 29 hearing at which Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is scheduled to testify on Trump’s plans to cut the Department of Health and Human Services budget by 13 percent.

One hearing that seems likely to go forward is a closed session scheduled on March 29 to discuss the U.S. European Command with Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti of the U.S. Army.

Senate Apprpriations isn’t planning budget hearings the week of March 27 but will have a session on the needs of Arlington National Cemetery, a spokesman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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