The House-Senate budget conference will meet next Wednesday, October 30 where they are expected to tackle entitlement and tax reform and spending cuts, though there is doubt that both sides will be able to put partisan views aside to reach an agreement after the failure of similar groups.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) will head the conference, and have been preparing the groundwork for talks that will begin next week. The conference is tasked with coming to an agreement by December 13 and the main goal will be finding a top-line discretionary spending level for FY14, which began on October 1. So far the House and Senate are $91 billion apart on their preferred top-line numbers.
The government, which re-opened last Thursday after a 16-day shutdown, is now operating under a $987 billion top-line budget. Fifteen days after Congress adjourns, the spending level will be cut by another round of sequestration to $968 billion. Funding runs out on January 15 and appropriators hope that a budget agreement will give them enough time to pass an omnibus spending bill by that time. The budget conference could also produce a wider deficit agreement would facilitate the passage of another increase in the debt ceiling by February 7.
In order to accomplish this, Democrats and Republicans need to meet somewhere in the middle; right now, the Senate budget contains nearly $1 trillion in tax hikes and spending increases, while the House budget would balance it in 10 years by cutting $5.7 trillion in spending.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Administrator Michael Huerta spoke out on Thursday saying that because of the recent government shutdown and time of uncertain funding levels, the agency’s core functions should be reevaluated, suggesting that the FAA could open the door to eventually privatizing some of what it does.
Huerta issued more than 1,000 stop work orders because of the shutdown, delaying work on the NextGen air traffic control upgrade, which is already taking longer than airlines had hoped. Thousands of safety-critical employees worked without pay until Congress cleared a funding and debt limit deal (P.L. 113-46).
Gathering support to pass a bill with these kinds of policy changes will be no easy feat. The last FAA reauthorization (P.L. 112-95) became law in February 2012, and was only successful after four years of stopgaps. At one point in August 2011, the agency partially shut down amid a standoff over union organizing rules for airline and railroad workers.
Since then, the FAA has been subject to repeated cuts, including those mandated by the sequester (P.L. 112-25). Huerta said those have exacerbated troubles in completing missions like the NextGen implementation. A law (P.L. 113-9) enacted in the spring allows the Transportation secretary the flexibility to prevent furloughs of air traffic controllers as a result of FY13 sequester cuts. Lawmakers have said they plan to continue giving similar flexibilities. Huerta also wants a long-term funding boost for aviation infrastructure. Currently the FAA has a $5 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.
The next reauthorization for the FAA isn’t due until 2016, but Huerta’s appeal to re-examine the agency’s core mission could be a critical first step in opening a dialogue on privatizing certain functions.
On Wednesday, the House voted 417-3 to pass a water infrastructure measure (H.R. 3080) after rejecting proposals to further reduce the backlog of inactive projects and delay provisions targeted at speeding up environmental reviews. 17 amendments were approved before passing the bill; some of the amendments that passed are as follows:
· A manager’s amendment from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Shuster (R-PA) was approved by voice vote. It would expand upon provisions in the bill to allow for more involvement by states and local governments in water projects by allowing state and local governments or the private sector (non-federal interests) to carry out projects that have not been expressly authorized by Congress if they meet certain requirements. A final feasibility report would need to be completed, and would have to obtain required federal and state permits and approvals and carry out the project in compliance with the plan set out in the final feasibility report. The manager’s amendment would require the Army secretary to speed up completion of ongoing feasibility studies and, if justified in a completed report, start preconstruction for the projects.
· A proposal that would block regional ocean management planning under a 2010 White House order that Republicans say grants too much power federal agencies to control inland water use was adopted 225-193.
· Several provisions dealing with invasive species were approved. One offered by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MI) would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to lead a multiagency effort to slow the spread of Asian carp in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins and tributaries by providing assistance to state and local governments.
Now, House and Senate conferees face the challenge of reconciling big differences in their bills to authorize harbor maintenance, dredging, dam, levee and environmental restoration programs. Both the House (H.R. 3080) and Senate (S. 601) bills would avoid earmarks, expedite regulatory and environmental reviews and restructure the funding mechanism for dredging and harbor maintenance projects. However, the bills take very different approaches toward achieving those objectives.
The biggest difference between the two bills is how to select Army Corps of Engineers projects that will be authorized for funding. In the past, lawmakers designated specific projects in authorization bills, but that is no longer permitted due to the earmark moratorium.
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) avoided the earmark issue in the Senate bill by setting criteria that the corps would have to follow in selecting projects. The measure would authorize $5.7 billion in projects through FY18. House Republicans complained that would cede too much legislative power to the executive branch. The House bill, instead, would authorize 23 projects with an estimated cost of $3.1 billion over the next five years and then establish a new process for future project selection. Under that system, the corps would submit its own recommendations — as well as state and local suggestions — for Congress to approve or reject. The measure also would require the president to recommend in his annual budget specific corps projects that Congress should fund.
Boxer said she was “pleased” that the House passed its bill “so that we can move forward with the House-Senate conference as soon as possible.
Next week in Congress, the House-Senate budget conference will meet on Wednesday to face the daunting task of trying to find an alternative to a $20 billion cut in national defense spending that’s set to occur in January.
The federal government is being funded now under the temporary spending language approved last week to end the government shutdown. That expires January 15, and some new funding mechanism for agencies will be needed by then. Whether that will be a longer-term plan, or whether another stopgap bill will be needed, could depend on the success of this budget conference committee in finding some compromises.
Also scheduled for next Wednesday is the first public meeting of the Farm Bill conference committee which will be chaired by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK).
The Senate passed its comprehensive Farm Bill in the early summer, while the House passed its farm policy and food aid proposals in two separate measures after a large bloc of conservative lawmakers insisted on splitting the legislation apart. The legislation will be stitched together for the sake of a House-Senate compromise.
The biggest issue of contention remains funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. The Senate measure would cut about $4 billion in funding for the program over the next decade, while the House version would slash nearly $40 billion.