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Violating the Sequester: A Congressional Blueprint

Even before the infamous sequester, the sequence of congressional appropriations measures held tremendous significance.  By passing the defense appropriations bill last, big-government lawmakers could typically increase spending on the 11 other measures above their allocations while knowing the legislative and executive branches would never squeeze defense spending to fit within the overall discretionary spending target.

While different in a post-sequester world, sequencing is even more important to big-government lawmakers determined to violate the discretionary spending caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the failure of the so-called super committee.

This delicate dance began in earnest this week.  CQ Roll Call (sub. req’d) reported:

Appropriators approved the bill (HR 2216) by voice vote [in committee in May], and there is expected to be broad support for it in the chamber.  …  The largely bipartisan Military Construction-[Veterans’ Affairs] bill would provide $152.8 billion, including $73.3 billion for discretionary spending, a $1.4 billion increase over the fiscal 2013 enacted level and $2.4 billion more than that level after the sequester.  The across-the-board cuts affected military construction accounts but not veterans’ spending.  (emphasis added)

Because of the sequester, the discretionary spending cap for FY14 is lower than the FY13 cap.  If appropriations for MilCon-VA increase as total discretionary spending decreases, other appropriations measures will have to be reduced by even more.

If this is a good faith effort to reallocate and prioritize federal spending, subsequent appropriations bills brought before the House will follow the levels outlined in the chart below.

House FY14 302b chart

However, the same CQ Roll Call article notes the MilCon-VA bill “may be one of only a handful of spending measures to make it to the floor this year” because the “others will face resistance because of deep divisions over funding levels.”

Even if the Republican-controlled House passes all 12 appropriations bills – and they should – there is no guarantee the Senate will comply.  In fact, it is all but certain the Democrat-controlled Senate will not because the Senate appropriations bills will not abide by the current caps on discretionary spending.  Senate appropriators plan to spend $1.058 trillion as opposed to $967 billion.

The discrepancy stems from the Senate’s unwillingness to recognize the sequester, which occurred because the so-called “super committee” failed to find another $1+ trillion in future “deficit reduction.” As a result, the FY14 discretionary spending cap went from $1.058 billion to $967 billion.

If the increased spending on MilCon-VA finds its way to President Obama’s desk, there will be tremendous downward pressure on the remaining appropriations bills.  That, in and of itself is not a bad thing; however, lawmakers must understand they are committing themselves to lower levels of spending on all the other appropriations measures.

Conservatives, including those involved in the Williamsburg Accord, will not be persuaded by arguments made by party leaders this fall that they must violate the discretionary spending caps because too much was spent on the earlier appropriations measures and reduced spending on the remaining bills (either separately or in an omnibus) is not achievable.

The MilCon-VA bill passed the House yesterday, and lawmakers will repeat the same drill with the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act.  To be clear, they should reallocate and prioritize discretionary spending under the existing $967 billion cap to reflect our nation’s most pressing needs and recognize the legitimate functions of the federal government.  However, if they were serious about such prioritization they could move bills dealing with State-Foreign Operations and Labor-HHS-Education first, to demonstrate their commitment to sticking to the caps.

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Senate appropriations bills will ignore the law and America's fiscal reality. #sequester

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In Congress, sequencing is as important as substance, especially on appropriations bills.

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House should move the hard appropriation bills first, not easy bills with increased spending.

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