The House Appropriations Committee is beginning to mark up the fiscal year 2018 spending bills, while Republican leaders struggle to devise a budget resolution that would set an overall discretionary spending total for the panel to follow.
The committee led by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) is starting to move the first of the bills—the annual Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill—using instead the discretionary spending framework called for in the 2011 Budget Control Act. Lawmakers said they will use the BCA number until another is set by the FY 2018 budget plan the GOP hopes to finalize this month—or until another bipartisan negotiation results in a more generous number than called for in the act.
The committee plans to mark up and pass the Milcon-VA bill soon, following approval of the measure by the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee late June 12. The draft bill, unveiled the evening of June 11, would provide $88.8 billion for Milcon programs next year—an increase of $6 billion.
Appropriators decided to begin moving the bills in the absence of a so-called 302(a) allocation provided by a budget resolution because there are now less than four months remaining before funding provided by the FY 2017 omnibus expires on Sept. 30. Lawmakers got off to a slow start on the measures because they only wrapped up work on a 2017 omnibus a month ago.
But the process being followed is drawing a rebuke from Democratic leaders, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticizing GOP leaders’ plans to try to push through one bill without showing a full set of 302(b) allocations that would show how more than $1 trillion is being spread across the 12 annual spending bills.
“House Republicans have failed to pass a budget or establish any kind of overall agreed-upon spending levels,” Pelosi said in a statement issued shortly before the markup. “Instead of working constructively, Republicans’ markup is just pushing us deeper into the destructive uncertainty and chaos over the budget. Marking up one discretionary bill without any sense of the whole is irresponsible and counterproductive.”
The Milcon-VA Subcommittee led by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) was expected to approve the first bill during a short markup session during the evening of June 12 and then begin preparing it for full committee action within the next week. The bill was not expected to be amended at subcommittee.
The draft of the Milcon-VA bill reflects Republicans’ plans to again prioritize security-related bills in this year’s appropriations process. The $6 billion increase would be added to a hefty increase in the 2017 Milcon-VA bill. The latter (Pub. L. No. 114-223) provided $82.3 billion, or a $2.5 billion increase over the funding appropriated in FY 2016.
Besides providing more overall money for Milcon-VA programs, the bill reflects a growing reliance on the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations account outside of the overall discretionary spending cap to cover the increases.
The Appropriations Committee said it is appropriating $638 million from the OCO to cover some of the increases. That compares to $172 million for projects in the FY 2017 bill. In the FY 2016 bill, no OCO funds were used.
Once again the Department of Veterans Affairs has emerged as a large winner in the process. The committee said funding for the agency would increase by $4 billion, or 5 percent, over current levels.
Meanwhile, military construction funds would be increased by $2.1 billion—25 percent over current funding, the committee said.
“Ensuring that the proper resources are available to rebuild our military is an essential priority of Republicans in Congress and the White House, and is key to conducting successful missions and keeping our nation secure,” Frelinghuysen said in a statement. “Our servicemen and servicewomen need the tools to do their jobs, and also need the peace of mind that their needs and the needs of their families are being taken care of here at home and around the world. Just as importantly, our veterans—who have sacrificed so much to protect our way of life—deserve the full health services and benefits they have earned.”
Last year, Milcon-VA also was moved early in the year and became the only one of the 12 that avoided being included in the omnibus package. Instead, the measure was used as a lead vehicle to pull along a continuing resolution to fund the federal government last fall.
Aides said this year’s Milcon-VA bill could be used similarly—or to be the lead vehicle in a 12-bill omnibus that Frelinghuysen said might be developed this summer.
But the increases announced for Milcon-VA bring into question what funding will be left for other programs, particularly on the non-defense side of the ledger.
While appropriators in FY 2017 were following an overall discretionary spending cap of $1.070 trillion, the BCA law requires FY 2018 spending to be cut by almost $5 billion—and $2.8 billion of that is in non-defense programs. Democrats suggested the developments are setting the stage for another fiscal crisis in September.
“Without top-line numbers to shed light on our priorities for the next year, appropriators are effectively working in the dark, and any bill they produce under these conditions will only further erode the certainty that the private sector needs to see from our government,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Hoyer called for Republicans to work with Democrats to strike a new deal to provide relief from the BCA caps.
“I urge House Republicans to work with Democrats to address our pressing fiscal needs. That means passing a budget agreement that responsibly lifts the sequester caps so that appropriations can proceed under regular order and ensuring that America pays its bills on time by passing a clean extension of the debt limit,” Hoyer said.
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