Fiscal Year 2009 begins two months from this Friday. Yet appropriations work on Capitol Hill has become seriously bogged down, and it now appears that it may not be until March 2009 - about six months into the new fiscal year - when the FY 2009 appropriations' cycle will be finished.
No one thought this year's appropriations' cycle would be easy. It is very unusual for all appropriations bills to be passed by the start of a new fiscal year. Congress routinely passes stopgap funding bills (known as continuing resolutions) to maintain funding at the current level until final appropriations legislation is passed. An increasingly common approach in securing passage is to bundle two or more appropriations bills into a larger bill. This was, for instance, done last year when a long-running dispute between President Bush and Congress resulted in the enactment of the phone-book-sized FY 2008 funding bill in the week before Christmas.
The outlook for congressional consideration of the appropriations bills initially seemed somewhat promising. Five weeks ago House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) told his colleagues to expect committee meetings on Monday and Friday because of "a very heavy workload in July." Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-WV) predicted that his committee would complete work on all of the twelve appropriations bills by the end this month.
The House schedule changed during the second week of July when Democratic and Republican appropriators clashed following a Republican effort to allow expanded offshore oil drilling. After Republicans attempted and failed to amend the FY 2009 Interior Bill to permit drilling, a similar attempt was made with a highly unusual amendment during the markup of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education FY 2009 bill. At that point Chairman Obey announced there would be no more markups. Although five of the twelve appropriations bills had been approved by the full committee by June 25, none were filed. Since that time there have been no further markups.
There are additional factors leading to this impasse. The potential for confrontations and delay during floor consideration is high in areas ranging from policy to funding levels to earmarks. The Democratic leadership contends that President Bush would veto any appropriations bill sent to him, which based on last year's experience seems likely.
While the House process had stalled, the Senate Appropriations Committee was marking up its bills. Both Chairman Byrd and Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS) predicted that their committee would complete its work by the end of July. That did not occur when Chairman Byrd postponed the markup of the FY 2009 Defense Appropriations Bill, citing "the uncertainty in how the oil and gas drilling issue is currently playing out on the Senate floor." Senate appropriators have finished work on nine of the twelve bills, leaving the Defense, Interior, and Legislative Branch bills to complete.
Late last week there was some progress. Democratic and Republican leaders agreed to move the FY 2009 Defense and the Military Construction-VA bills. The outlook for the remaining bills is very cloudy. There is growing sentiment that the House and Senate leadership will adjourn for the year at the end of September after passing first legislation to maintain funding for departments and agencies at current levels until March 2009.