Monday, March 20, 2006

Foodlinks America: Congress wary of budget cuts in 2007

The excellent Foodlinks America newsletter this week covers recent federal budget news for food and nutrition assistance programs.
The annual budget process is underway in Congress, with the Senate completing work on a Budget Resolution for fiscal year 2007 on March 16, 2006 after a week-long debate. The final budget plan diverges significantly from President Bush’s proposed budget unveiled last month. Floor amendments added $16 billion in additional spending for social, low-income energy, and job safety programs above the Administration’s proposed ceiling.

Throughout the budget process in the Senate, there was little enthusiasm, even among Republicans, for further cuts in domestic program budgets, with key members of Congress rejecting President Bush’s call for more reductions in Medicare and other benefit programs.

Less than two months have passed since Congress narrowly approved (by two votes in the House and a tie-breaking vote in the Senate) a budget reconciliation bill that cut entitlement programs by nearly $40 billion over the next five years. In spite of a burgeoning federal deficit that will increase by over $1.2 trillion in the next 10 years if the President’s plan is enacted, members are hesitant to trim spending any further.

Leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee petitioned their Budget Committee counterparts to spare their programs from any future cuts. “We respectfully request that the FY07 Budget Resolution not require a new round of reductions in Agriculture Committee mandatory spending programs this year,” stated chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and ranking Democrat Tom Harkin (D-IA) in a March 2, 2006 letter to the budget panel. “We strongly believe it is simply not realistic, substantively or politically, to expect additional reductions from these mandatory spending programs this year.”

Chambliss and Harkin also sought to protect nutrition assistance and discretionary programs under the Committee’s purview. “Protecting Food Stamps from spending cuts was a decision that received broad bipartisan support in the Senate last year, and that sentiment enjoys the same broad bipartisan support this year,” they noted. “We also ask that the FY07 Budget Resolution provide for adequate discretionary spending for the important programs within our Committee’s jurisdiction that rely on annual appropriations.”

Even a central congressional figure in the budget planning, Judd Gregg (R-NH), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that although he was committed to holding down spending, he could not rule out cuts in military appropriations. “The White House has approached budgeting as if they are running two sets of books: One for the general government and one for national defense,” said Gregg. “And the one for general government is subject to severe budget restraint and the one for national defense is subject to absolutely no restraint.”

Gregg garnered little support this year in devising a second budget-cutting bill. “I went to the chairmen of the committees which were responsible for reconciliation and all of them felt that in this climate it would be very difficult for them to do that,” Gregg noted. Consequently, he termed the process of developing a non-binding 2007 Budget Resolution a “vanilla exercise” that ignores most of the President’s controversial cuts in this election year.

On the Senate floor, Iowa’s Harkin also successfully teamed up with Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), chair of the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, to add $7 billion in funding for discretionary programs under their jurisdiction, such as Head Start, meals on wheels, and the Community Food and Nutrition Program. “Health and education are the two major capital assets of this country,” said Specter. His colleagues generally agreed with him and approved the additional spending by a vote of 73 to 27. However, the final vote on the overall Budget Resolution was close, with the bill passing by a 51-49 vote.
The newsletter has much more, and is free. To subscribe contact Barbara Vauthier (bvauthier at 281 dot com).