While the House and Senate Appropriations Committees continue to mark up their respective versions of the FY2014 appropriations bills, this action masks deep divides between the House and the Senate. Both are operating using vastly different top line numbers. In fact, the Senate bills are $91 billion over the House counterparts. Without a common Budget Resolution that would require the House and Senate to adhere to the same top line both sides have decided to follow their own drummer. The House passed a budget resolution that reflected the overall discretionary appropriations amounts contained in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, the House increased the funding level in the Budget Control Act for defense and further reduced the non-defense discretionary funding. The Senate ignored both sets of Budget Control Act numbers. Importantly, even if one side prevailed over the other, absent a deal on the sequester, both approaches taken by the House and the Senate would result in a sequester later on in the year. Since the House number on discretionary defense spending exceeds the cap contemplated in the Budget Control Act, defense spending would suffer a sequester to bring it into line with the defense spending level in that Act. The same would hold true for both discretionary defense and non-defense spending in the Senate budget plan.
After passing four appropriations bills that dealt mainly with defense and security spending, the House strategy to force spending cuts on the discretionary side of the ledger unraveled as the House was unable to proceed on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations as a result of a division within Republican ranks. Many Republicans felt that the bill still spent too much, while most Democrats and a significant minority of Republicans felt that the bill was too low in funding. Sensing the votes were not there for passage, the Republican leadership pulled the bill from the schedule. The Speaker confirmed what everyone has known for quite some time--a Continuing Resolution is the only avenue available for Congress to avert a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year in September.
After the failure to consider the THUD appropriations bill, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-KY) expressed the frustration of many appropriators when he said "With this action, the House has declined to proceed on the implementation of the very budget it adopted just three months ago. Thus, I believe that the House has made its choice: sequestration – and its unrealistic and ill-conceived discretionary cuts – must be brought to an end." The prospect that the House Republican Leadership heeds the call of Chairman Rodgers and tries to negotiate with the Administration on an alternative that would bring an end to sequestration is not off to a good start. Speaker Boehner said that sequestration will continue "until the president agrees to cuts and reforms that will allow us to remove it." As always, the difficulty will be coming up with alternatives to sequestration that are more politically palatable than those that result from the sequestration itself. Until that occurs, the "new normal" of continuing resolutions and sequestration is likely to continue.
By George C. Crawford