House, Senate pass budget bill to avert shutdown
This is what a smaller government will look like: There will be less money for local cops, but more money for FBI agents. Less to repair public-housing complexes. More to feed hungry children.
There will be less to fix polluted rivers. But more to fix crowded prisons.
On Thursday, the House and Senate passed a bill that provided a detailed vision of the federal government on a diet. Lawmakers approved a $130.4 billion measure to fund five Cabinet departments, the first big budget bill since this summer’s promise of greater austerity.
It was a guide to what this Congress cares about, now that it can’t care about everything.
The bill favors law enforcement agencies and programs that funnel money directly to voters. And it cuts programs that send cash to local government agencies — or other nonvoting recipients, such as rivers and grasslands and woods.
“What it says to me is that the federal priorities . . . are wrong,” said Doug Siglin, a lobbyist for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. His cause was one of the losers: The bill strips out millions of dollars to pay farmers for preventing pollution from running off their property and into the watershed.
“The priority seems to be that the money we spend on agriculture goes to pollute the environment,” by encouraging more farming without environmental safeguards, Siglin said. “And not to end the pollution.”
Thursday’s budget bill contains a provision that would fund the entire federal government until Dec. 16, averting a shutdown.
But its broader impact comes from the budgets it sets for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Transportation — as well as science agencies such as NASA. These budgets are the first ones approved since the federal debt-ceiling fight ended with a pledge to create a leaner government.
This budget is leaner. But not by much. The whole package was $700 million less (not counting “emergency” funding for disasters) than last year, which was a reduction of 0.5 percent.
“They’re basically overturning the cushions on the mattress and basically trying to find the loose change,” said Tad DeHaven, a budget analyst for the Cato Institute. “There’s nothing here that fundamentally alters what the government does.”
But, for some specific programs, the bill carries significant cuts. At the Justice Department, for instance, the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program would lose $296 million.
“Certainly, there will be police officer jobs that will be lost,” said Walter McNeil, a Florida police chief who is president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The explanation from Congress was the “challenging budget environment.” But, for Steve Ellis at the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, another explanation suggested itself: the end of earmarks.
Previously, members of Congress had used these to steer COPS grants to their districts — in 2010, there were 568 earmarks in the program. Earmarks are no longer used, Ellis said, and Congress has decided that COPS is not a high priority.
“They’re having to fill in the picture and color between the lines they set out,” Ellis said. In the same bill, Congress added millions to the budgets of the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
For the poor, this budget bill would slash funding that was distributed through local public housing agencies. It would cut $165 million meant to maintain housing complexes, and $654 million to help operate them.
But, at the same time, it would add more money to food-aid programs. Funding for the food stamp program would rise by $12 million. The school lunch program would grow as well.
“The good thing is that — in a time when more and more people need school breakfast and school lunch and the other programs — Congress is meeting that need,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. But he objected to a provision in the bill that allowed pizza to count as a vegetable in school lunches.
The bill also allots less funding than Democrats wanted for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has been charged with regulating complex financial transactions called “swaps.” It also blocks the creation of a one-stop-shop for climate information at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The bill passed 298 to 121 in the House and 70 to 30 in the Senate. President Obama’s signature would make it law.
Harder work remains. Congress must pass budgets for the rest of the federal government — divvying up a total of $1.043 trillion.
On Thursday, lawmakers congratulated themselves for taking the first step.
“Your appropriations committee . . . is working,” said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the committee’s chairman, summing up years of dysfunction in a single dramatic pause.
Staff writer Brian Vastag contributed to this report.