INSIDE WASHINGTON/Congress holds breath
Congress failed to approve new spending guidelines for most domestic programs last month, forcing the Senate and House to return to Capitol Hill in November to try and complete their work against the backdrop of a politically charged lame duck session. “We are hoping some work gets accomplished,” says Ed Rosado, legislative director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties (NACo). “But it is very, very up in the air.”
A plan now being discussed in the Capitol hallways is to package all nine annual appropriations bills into one, large omnibus bill. But if Democrats seize control of either the Senate or White House there is a chance they would prevent the measure from passing and force the final vote to be carried over until next year when they are in power.
Such action would require Congress to approve a long-term continuing resolution to fund federally sponsored programs at current budget levels into early next year. Even though Congress is required by law to have a spending plan in place by Oct. 1, rarely does it achieve that goal. The 2004 appropriations bills, for example, were not completed until earlier this year.
While acknowledging a best case scenario would be to have Congress approve all the spending bills at levels acceptable to local governments, Arlington, Mass., Selectman Charles Lyons says a delay this year could work to the advantage of cities and counties.
“There is good news and bad news in this,” says Lyons, who also serves as president of the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities. “The bad news is Congress didn’t do its work, and for that they receive an F. The good news is they didn’t do their work, because funding levels in some of the House bills were inadequate.”
For example, local officials contend the House has not adequately funded the Veterans’ Affairs/Housing Urban Development spending bill. In its analysis of the measure, the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Conference of Mayors says that the “House … virtually cut all housing and community development programs.”
Conversely, the Senate has increased funding for many of the same programs, such as the Community Development Block Grant and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program. The differences over the bill’s funding levels underscore the extensive negotiations that must take place for Congress to finish its work.
Congress also failed to approve the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, a multi-year transportation funding bill, and it is unlikely to be addressed again this year. Instead, the House and Senate approved a temporary funding measure, that expires May 31, 2005, to provide negotiators more time to pass the bill.
Already facing that setback, local officials now are urging federal lawmakers to set aside their partisan differences and agree on funding levels for the 2005 domestic spending bills that they say are needed to provide critical services to their constituents. “Congress must ensure that the programs and services counties are required to provide for its citizens are properly funded,” says Lake County, Ill., Board Member Angelo Kyle, who also serves as NACo’s president.
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.