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Spending bill passes - now the hard part

Nov. 29, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
The appropriations bill is the first to pass Congress since lawmakers imposed long-term spending caps as part of the debt ceiling law approved last summer.
The appropriations bill is the first to pass Congress since lawmakers imposed long-term spending caps as part of the debt ceiling law approved last summer. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)

A handful of agencies have a sliver of good news: They now have a full year's appropriation from Congress relatively early in the fiscal year only a month and a half late.

But for agencies covered by the so-called "minibus" spending bill, approved by Congress and signed by President Obama on Nov. 18, there are still huge financial challenges ahead.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission's budget is essentially frozen, even as it shoulders a massive new regulatory responsibility. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is barred from spending any money to create a proposed National Climate Service. And the Housing and Urban Development Department faces several billion dollars of spending cuts.

The spending bill also covers NASA and the Justice, Commerce, Transportation and Agriculture departments.

For other agencies still awaiting their appropriations, the bill extends short-term funding at close to last year's levels through Dec. 16, when lawmakers hope to wrap up work on other spending bills.

The appropriations bill is the first to pass Congress since lawmakers imposed long-term spending caps as part of the debt ceiling law approved last summer. It "is the next step in breaking the status quo of excessive federal spending that's throwing our budgets out of whack," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., told colleagues before the bill overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate.

Others were less impressed. The bill's $128.1 billion in discretionary spending is almost unchanged from last year's figure of $128.6 billion, said Patrick Knudsen, a budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The measure also includes another $2.3 billion in disaster assistance funding.

"Frankly, it's fairly disappointing," Knudsen said.

For many programs, the measure nonetheless pares funding in comparison with last year, according to an appropriations committee summary.

Discretionary spending at Agriculture, for example, is trimmed by $350 million or 2 percent from last year, while the $17.8 billion included for NASA represents a 3.5 percent decline. Among major agencies, the hardest hit is HUD, whose budget would drop more than 11 percent to $37.3 billion.

The Community Development Block Grant program, which took a 16.5 percent reduction last year, is cut again by more than 12 percent to $2.9 billion, HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan said. Also whacked is the HOME program, which funnels grant money for communities to buy, built or rehabilitate affordable housing. Its budget falls from $1.6 billion to $1 billion.

In a statement, HUD spokesman Neill Coleman called the cuts disappointing, but added that officials are "closely examining the effects of these reductions and ways in which we can mitigate their impact."

At $205 million, this year's Commodity Futures Trading Commission budget is almost unchanged from 2011. But it is far below the Obama administration's $308 million request and comes as the commission is charged with overseeing a $300 trillion derivatives market under the Dodd-Frank financial services overhaul approved last year. Flat funding does not allow for "effective implementation" of those new responsibilities, said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

In addition, Roper said, Congress earmarked some of this year's funding for information technology upgrades, meaning that the commission could be forced to cut jobs if lawmakers don't add more money. Neither CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler nor a spokesman returned phone calls.

The Transportation Department fares better: This year's $17.8 billion discretionary budget is almost 30 percent higher than last year, according to the appropriations committee. Almost all of that increase represents a restoration of money that was rescinded last year, said Erich Zimmermann, a senior policy analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Lawmakers also claim to have targeted some 20 programs for elimination. Among the largest is the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center, based in Johnstown, Pa. Funding for the center is slashed by more than half to $20 million, with that sum to be used to close the facility and reassign its work elsewhere as needed, according to the legislation.

Politics, not money, appears to have derailed plans for creation of the National Climate Service, combining the National Climatic Data Center and several other existing NOAA organizations. The Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, had unveiled the idea last year as a means of providing "timely and accurate" information on climate change to the public and other government officials.

The proposed service, which would not have required added funding, was intended to furnish information more efficiently, said Steve Seidel, vice president for policy analysis at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonpartisan research organization.

But the endeavor fell afoul of lawmakers who question whether human activities are affecting the climate and NOAA opted not to proceed, Seidel said. Last year, Thomas Karl, the data center's director, was named as transitional head of the climate service. Karl, however, stepped down from that latter post about six months ago and has not been replaced, a spokeswoman said.

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