INSIDE SCOOP: What the heck is this ‘appropriations’ process?

| 10/5/2007

Friday, Oct. 5, 2007 – Every year, legislation is put together that funds federal government operations for the upcoming fiscal year – and it’s been a long time since that process was completed before the new fiscal year started.

The federal government’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 each year. Funding for the fiscal year is approved in several different pieces of appropriations legislation.

The House of Representatives and the Senate must both approve each of the several pieces of legislation, agree on final versions in conference committee to send to the president and the president must sign the legislation for the funding to continue.

The last time all of the appropriations bills were completely done and signed before Oct. 1 was in 1994.

This year, none of the 12 measures were passed in both chambers, agreed upon in conference committee and signed by the president before the start of the fiscal year. The last time none of the 12 measures made it all the way through the process before Oct. 1 was five years ago.

That doesn’t mean the there is no money for federal agencies right now. The government is currently running on a continuing resolution designed to keep money flowing to the agencies while the funding legislation is hammered out and signed by the president. That continuing resolution expires on Nov. 16.

The funding legislation is broken down into 12 areas. They are:

  • Agriculture;
  • Commerce/justice/science;
  • Energy and water;
  • Financial services;
  • Homeland security;
  • Interior and environment;
  • Labor/health and human services/education;
  • Legislative branch;
  • Military/veterans;
  • State/foreign operations; and
  • Transportation/housing and urban development.

Because it seems rather commonplace to miss the Oct. 1 fiscal year deadline, at least in part, many may assume that it really doesn’t mean much if the bills aren’t done.

One of the best examples of what can go on, or wrong, during this process was in 1995 and 1996. The federal government was partially shut down twice because of disagreements between Republican members of Congress and President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, on how much should be appropriated.

The first partial shutdown started on Nov. 13, 1995. Thousands of government employees were “furloughed” – government-speak for laid off – and several federal services slowed down.

At first, it was mainly parks services and such that shut down – leaving hunters looking for other places to hunt. As the shutdown progressed, various federal benefit programs struggled. People applying for mortgages found their paperwork stalled. Federal fuel subsidies were threatened. And, federal employees who were essentially laid off weren’t being paid.

Eventually the government restarted on Nov. 21. It was short-lived when a second partial shutdown started on Dec. 16 – just nine days before Christmas.

Once again, thousands of federal employees were left without paychecks. Parks and such closed down. But, the impact of the second shutdown was much more far-reaching. Veteran benefits to 3.3 million vets were delayed. Some federal prisoners were released while local, county and state jails and prisons took up the slack.

In these two shutdowns, some critical jobs remained staffed. Federal employees working as air-traffic controllers or in security roles either on the boarders or in the military have stayed on the job.

The second shutdown ended Jan. 6, 1996.

All the time many federal employees went without paychecks, vets wondered if they were going to get their benefits and other federal employees – like air traffic controllers – wondered if they would be laid off next, Congress and President Clinton negotiated back and forth over differences of opinion on funding levels.

It’s that type of “differences of opinion,” which could be considered code for squabbling between Republicans and Democrats, that lead to the slowdown in funding that the federal government could experience this year if Congress and President George W. Bush don’t find a way to see eye-to-eye.

The president has been very vocal that he is prepared to veto many of the 12 bills – even so many as 11 of them according to a recent press briefing held at the White House.

The president says he will veto because the appropriations bills spend approximately $23 billion more than he has proposed to spend in his budget.

The Democratic leaders in Congress say that much of the money restores cuts proposed by Bush to programs such as community development grants, health research and anti-crime initiatives. They are also quick to point out that $23 billion is far less than the president’s proposed $189 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Regardless of the reasons, an adversarial relationship between the White House and Congress exists on this round of fiscal-year federal funding. That contentious relationship may lead to a veto of the transportation appropriations bill. That bill sets aside funding for the Department of Transportation, all of its lower agencies such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

This particular version of the transportation appropriations could include a provision cutting off funding for the cross-border program with Mexico.

Amendments cutting off the program’s funding were added to both the House version and the Senate version of the transportation appropriations bills. Those two versions are heading for a conference committee where select members of the House and Senate will agree on a final version of the bill.

That version goes to the president.

Washington insiders say the Democratic leaders of Congress are going to push out a couple different appropriations bills as “sacrificial lambs” for the president to veto – making good on his threat.

The transportation appropriations bill could be one of them.

If vetoed, Congress will have two choices. They can try to override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate. Or, they can rewrite the appropriations bill into something they think the president will sign and send it back.

– By Jami Jones, senior editor