With less than 30 working days left on Congress's official 2004 legislative calendar, lawmakers are turning to annual spending bills with a growing sense of urgency to try to enact provisions that otherwise would have little chance of becoming law.
A case in point was yesterday's House Appropriations Committee markup of a $143 billion bill funding the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. The debate on spending levels quickly gave way to battles over proposed riders dealing with tax policy, abortion, overtime rules and a U.S.-Mexican agreement on Social Security benefits for nationals of the two countries.
Spending bills already passed by the House have carried riders easing trade restrictions on Cuba, prohibiting the disclosure in civil lawsuits of firearms information collected by the government, allowing the importation of cheap prescription drugs from abroad, and barring the use of Agriculture Department funds to carry out a proposed $9.6 billion buyout of tobacco growers.
Many of these provisions are in the jurisdiction of committees charged with drafting legislation and setting trade, farm and judicial policy. But most significant legislation has been stalled this year. One reason is the election-year politics gripping the closely divided House and Senate. Another reason is that political disagreements with the White House or among members of the Republican majority have sidetracked some bills, such as major energy and transportation legislation.
That leaves the appropriations bills, which Congress must pass each year to keep the government running.
At one point yesterday, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) complained that the labor, health and education bill was becoming "a garbage dump" for legislation with which other committees should deal. He was reacting to a rider proposed by Rep. George R. Nethercutt (R-Wash.), which called for a study of the impact on high-tech companies of requiring the expensing of stock options. It later passed on a voice vote.
John Scofield, spokesman for the committee, expressed similar frustrations. Getting the bills through Congress in time for the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1 is "made more difficult by the addition of controversial legislative riders that various parties want to attach to these bills," he said.
The problem is not likely to go away, say aides in both parties. Dozens of essential programs, and even some government departments requiring periodic reauthorization, are kept going by provisions included in annual spending bills.
Still in need of authorization, according to a Congressional Budget Office study, are the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the Agriculture Department, the Pell grant program for low-income college students, the Head Start preschool education program, the U.S. Coast Guard, the FBI, Amtrak, the embassy and consular programs of the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency's hazardous waste superfund.
Last year, Republican leaders used an appropriations bill to attach the Bush administration's signature foreign aid initiative, Milennium Challenge. A separate bill authorizing the program was never enacted.
Yesterday's markup of the fiscal 2005 labor, education and health bill typified the scramble to take care of business on the annual spending measures.
The popular bill provides $1 billion increases each for education for the disabled and for the Title I program aiding schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Federal education programs were allotted $57 billion. Increases were also provided for the National Institutes of Health and community health centers, though Democrats complained that other key social programs, such as job retraining and rural health initiatives, were shortchanged.
But in the more than two hours of debate, discussion of funding levels took a back seat to other concerns.
Democrats narrowly lost a bid to block the Labor Department from going ahead with new rules that could make millions of workers ineligible for overtime pay. A similar provision was approved by the House last year but was stripped from a final version of the bill after administration pressure.
Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.) pushed through a legislative provision strongly backed by antiabortion forces, prohibiting federal departments or states from discriminating against Catholic and other hospitals that do not "provide, pay for, provide [insurance] coverage of, or refer for abortions."
The provision passed on a voice vote, despite complaints from some members that the matter should be handled by the Judiciary Committee.
But Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-Va.) fared less well with a proposal to block the Social Security Administration from implementing an accord reached last month with Mexico, providing pension reciprocity for Mexicans and Americans working in each others' countries.
Goode said the agreement would supersede existing law that prohibits illegal immigrants from collecting Social Security payments based on contributions they made to the system while working in this country.
The amendment was defeated 36 to 20 after Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who oversees the budget for labor, education and health programs, urged Goode to take his provision to the Ways and Means Committee. That committee, he noted, has jurisdiction over Social Security policy.
"If it's on an appropriations bill and it survives in the Senate and in a House-Senate conference, that would block" the U.S.-Mexican agreement, Goode said.
Barring that, he noted, opponents face a more difficult task of getting both houses of Congress to pass a "resolution of disavowal" within 60 days after the agreement takes effect.