Budget and Appropriations
President Bush sent his final budget to Congress this week, and the reception it received on Capitol Hill was rather chilly. Topping three trillion dollars, and bringing the federal deficit to a high of $410 billion, the FY 2009 budget proposal would freeze education spending at $59 billion and cut most other domestic agency spending. Two rare exceptions are the National Science Foundation and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, which both would receive modest increases.
The delivery of the administration's FY 2009 proposal formally kicks off the budget and appropriations season. You will recall that last year this process turned into an 11-month, partisan slugfest. The Democratic majority was determined last year to exceed the president's overall spending level for priority programs in education, healthcare and the workforce but at the end of the day had to settle for his original proposal. Hoping to influence voters, Democrats are doing their best to lower expectations for budget watchers, claiming the need for better leadership in the White House and stronger majorities in both the House and Senate in order to increase spending. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already announced his intention to produce appropriations bills that reflect the will of his party, send them to the president for near-certain vetoes, pass a continuing resolution and finish the job with a new Democratic president in the White House. It is a plan that is not without risk.
A budget proposal contains more than recommended spending levels. The president attaches legislative proposals to modify programs and rhetoric about consequences if the president's desires are not met. In the FY 2009 proposal, President Bush cautioned against the practice of members of Congress earmarking program funds and said he would veto any bill that does not reduce earmarks by 50 percent from the previous year. He also put Congress on notice that earmarks contained in report language do not have the force of law and will not be honored in the future.
Conversation about earmarks was not limited to President Bush. House Republicans continue to push for a one-year moratorium, and Senators appointed a committee to review earmark practices and come up with a new plan. It is a troublesome issue that refuses to go away. Members are clearly torn between their desire to help communities and programs they support and the bad press generated by the debate over this practice.
On a positive note, by week's end, Congress demonstrated to the public that in the face of extraordinary pressure it could get work done in a timely and bi-partisan fashion. The Senate agreed to a $150 billion economic stimulus package that had moved swiftly through the House last week. It is a proposal the president is sure to sign. This compromise measure marked the first instance of cooperation between the majority and minority leadership in the House, and although the Senate was reluctant to jump on board, growing public concern about the economy prevailed.