Budget battles: FY 2011 and FY 2012

The budget battles are hard to follow, but on all fronts defenders of spending on diplomacy and development are fighting rear-guard actions to protect retreat and avoid a rout.

First, the battle for FY 2011. Fiscal year 2011 will reach its half-way point on April 1, with no budget yet adopted. The government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions that provide funding for most agencies and programs at the levels appropriated for FY 2010; the current continuing resolution expires March 4.

The House Republican caucus is divided about whether to cut $100 billion from the administration’s FY 2011 spending request, or from the spending levels in the continuing resolution (CR). The newly elected members generally favor the latter approach, which starts from a lower base.

The chairman of the House appropriations committee, Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY), has posted proposed reductions on the committee’s website. The committee proposes to hold FY 2011 spending on State and foreign operations (mainly USAID) to $44.9 billion, less than the $48.7 billion appropriated in FY 2010 (the CR level) and 21 percent below than the $56.6 billion in the administration’s FY 2011 request. The committee’s summary of its proposal says “the bill reduces almost all State and Foreign Operations Accounts, except for specific security assistance accounts…. The [bill] supports civilian operations in frontline countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan” and does not propose cuts in aid to Israel or Egypt. With only seven months left in the year, these cuts, even if enacted tomorrow, would be quite hard to implement. The deeper into the year the government goes without a budget, the harder spending reductions will to accomplish.

The battle will not soon be resolved. Even if the House, with a Republican majority, begins to vote out appropriations bills or new and reduced continuing resolutions, the Senate, still in Democratic hands, may try to restore funds the House would cut. House-Senate differences are not merely partisan; a number of Senate Republicans want cuts to be implemented only gradually, and a number of Senate Democrats, chastened by election results, are prepared to accept spending discipline that many House Democrats resist.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) defended spending on foreign affairs specifically in a February 7 interview with CNN’s John King. Graham said:

So I would say to all of my colleagues, let’s slow down, take a deep breath.  The foreign operations budget is less than 1 percent of total federal spending.… But ask General Petraeus, General Austin, Admiral Mullen about the value of the civilian military partnership, USAID, State Department, the Department of Justice, the Department of Agriculture.  They’re part of the fight in Afghanistan.  And these civilian programs that will allow us to hold and build in Afghanistan and Iraq are, I think, national security programs that need to be protected like national security spending. But, yes, reform is on the table.  But getting out of the foreign operations assistance to our friends business only buys trouble.  It’s a penny wise and a pound foolish, in my view.

The FY 2011 battle sets the stage for a larger fight over FY 2012. The administration’s FY 2010 budget request should go to the Congress next week. It’s a safe bet that the budget request will mark the upper limit for the ensuing debate. It’s also a safe bet that the divided 112th Congress will have no easier time with the FY 2012 budget and appropriations bills than the all-Democratic 111th Congress did with FY 2011.

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