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Editorial - Congress Passes Another Omnibus Spending Bill for 2016

At the end of the year, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the fiscal year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations bill, H.R. 2029, halting a government shutdown at the end of the year, but this time with less public fanfare. Or perhaps the fear of a government shutdown and the sweeping legislation that follows has become old news already for the mainstream media.

Of course, there was lack of agreement over funding levels, which led to the passage of the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2016, which funded the government through December 11, 2015. After the Continuing Resolution, which funded top-line discretionary spending, two more short-term extensions were required before the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 was approved. The 2,000-page measure concluded the 114th Congress.

According to a January 11 Budget Bulletin report about the Omnibus spending bill from the Senate Committee of the Budget by Deputy Staff Director Dan Kowalski and analyst David Ditch, the annual congressional fiscal process has failed to produce 12 individual appropriations bills, prior to the start of the fiscal year on October 1 as it was designed, since 1995. The Omnibus bills are a way to move the process along when it stalls.

“An Omnibus expedites floor consideration of legislation when the fiscal deadline looms and also provides an expanded field for funding and policy negotiations to take place,” the report noted.

In recent years, Omnibus packages were approved by Congress in 2009 and 2012. In 2010, a six-bill Omnibus passed. The 2014 and 2016 Omnibus bills contained all 12 spending bills, and the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for 2015 was a combination Omnibus and Continuing Resolution. To distinguish the two, the report noted, “Continuing Resolutions only permit minor changes to previously enacted spending, but an Omnibus bill gives the Appropriations Committee and the rest of Congress the ability to fine-tune federal funding priorities.”

On December 18, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 316 to 113. The Senate later voted to approve the measure by a 65 to 33 vote, and President Obama signed the bill shortly after.

On January 15, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report (“Unauthorized Appropriations and Expiring Authorizations,” which said that the fiscal year 2016 budget includes $310 billion for programs whose statutory authorization for funding has expired.

The report also gave a good summary of how spending authorizations make up the two-part legislative practice, which first establishes the federal entities or programs, and then funds them in a second law. With authorizations in place, funding comes separately in annual appropriation laws.

The newest CBO report focuses on the second group of authorizations, guiding a specific provision that authorizes the appropriation of funds. “Such a provision constitutes guidance to the Congress regarding the amount of funding that may be necessary to implement the enabling statute,” the report said. “An authorization of appropriations may be contained in an enabling statute or may be provided separetely. Such an authorization may set a specific dollar amount (a definite authorization) or allow the appropriation of ‘such sums as may be necessary’ (an indefinite authorization) and it may be annual, multiyear or permanent.”

The CBO report is intended to help guide Congress by identifying those authorizations of appropriation that have already expired or will expire this year. With the newest Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA) in place, water resources is not on that list, but it’s quite a long list, considering what Congress is up against to balance the impossible budget as it is. With sweeping last minute legislation and business-as-usual continuing resolutions, it’s difficult to do the work that needs to be done for the budget as a whole.

Outside the jargon that controls our legislative process, despite the constant back and forth over funding levels, and in the face of a budget that, according to the CBO, increases the federal deficit for the first time since 2009, the 2016 budget was a good one for the Corps and navigation programs. Some have criticized the budget overall for increasing spending, but water resources need to be funded. The increased levels this year are still far below what is truly needed to sustain the Civil Works program, which is why the Corps is so focused on public-private partnerships to help meet the need.

For FY 2016, the Corps of Engineers Civil Works program was funded at $5.898 billion, an increase of $535 million above the fiscal year 2015 enacted level and $1.25 billion above the President’s budget request. That total includes $2.6 billion for navigation projects and studies, including more than $1.2 billion for the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF), which is the total outlined in WRRDA 2014; HMTF funding was 31 percent above the President’s request. The bill also authorizes full use of the annual revenues from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund for work on the inland waterways infrastructure and includes $1.7 billion in support of flood and storm damage reduction projects.

The Corps investigations program will receive $121 million, and authority for up to 10 new study starts, with up to seven studies where the majority of the benefits are derived from navigation and flood control and up to three from environmental restoration.

Overall, the construction program was funded $1.862 billion, and granted authority for up to six new starts, five of which will focus on navigation and flood control. O & M funding comes in at $3.137 billion.

The Corps has sixty days (until February 18) to submit a work plan to the appropriations committee to allocate the additional funding from 2016. The work plan will also include a detailed description of the ratings system developed for evaluating studies and projects; a delineation of how these additional fund are to be allocated; a summary of work to be accomplished with each allocation; and a list of all studies and projects that were considered eligible for funding but did not receive funding, including an explanation of whether the study or project could have used funds in fiscal year 2016 and the specific reasons each study or project was considered as being less competitive for funding allocation.

Projects or studies can receive funding, under regulation guidelines, if (1) it has received funding, other than through a reprograming, in at least one of the previous three fiscal years; (2) it was previously funded and could reach a significant milestone, complete a discrete element of work, or produce significant outputs in fiscal year 2016; or (3) as appropriate, it is selected as one of the new starts allowed in accordance with the act. In the next issue, we’ll report more on the projects in line for 2016 funding.

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