Why Congressional Appropriations Matter for Maine
Washington, DC, July 24, 2017
The following is a column distributed to Maine newspapers in July 2017.
One of the most important committees in Congress is also the least understood: Appropriations. And it’s not surprising. From “302(b) allocations” to “manager’s amendments,” the workings of this committee are nearly indecipherable to anyone outside Washington.
But it’s also true that the House Appropriations Committee—which I have had the privilege of serving on since 2013—is incredibly powerful. While Congress may create federal programs by authorizing or reauthorizing them, the appropriations committees in the House and Senate decide what gets funded and at what levels. In short, they hold Congress’ “power of the purse.”
We’re in the thick of the appropriations process right now. I thought this might be a good time to cut through the policy weeds to explain how the committee works and also give an update on what I’m doing to advocate for programs that are important to Maine.
First, here’s a bit of a primer. The House Appropriations Committee doesn’t have authority over all federal spending, but quite a bit of it. A large amount of the federal budget is made up of “mandatory” spending—like Social Security and Medicare—that doesn’t fall under the committee. But “discretionary” spending has to be approved by the committee in the form of annual appropriations bills.
The committee writes those bills with the input of Congress’ budget resolution—which sets amounts for large categories of federal spending—as well as the President’s budget request. Twelve Appropriations subcommittees receive a certain amount of funding and have to decide how to divide that sum across the federal programs and agencies in their jurisdiction. I sit on two subcommittees. One oversees funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration; the other determines spending at the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and some smaller agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts.
Each subcommittee writes its own appropriations bill. This is where members can have a great deal of influence. I’m in constant contact with Maine stakeholders to find out what federal spending programs are most important to our communities. I then work to get those priorities included in the bills so our state can access an adequate amount of resources.
The committee can also use its spending authority to influence federal agencies in other ways. For instance, it can pass “riders” that keep an agency from doing a particular action by withholding funding for it. Or the committee can include “report language” in their bills urging the agency to take a specific action.
After holding hearings where we can question the heads of federal agencies, each subcommittee debates, amends and votes on their appropriations bills—a process called “markup.” Then, all those bills go through another markup by the full Appropriations Committee. If it gets through the committee, it goes on to a vote by the full House.
The idea is that the Senate will pass its own appropriations bills and that both bodies will eventually hold a conference committee to come to agreement on a unified version. Washington being Washington, though, this hasn’t happened in quite a while. Instead, Congress has waited until its spending authority is about to expire, forcing us to pass shorter-term measures like continuing resolutions or a patchwork of bills called an “omnibus.”
Right now, the full Appropriations Committee is debating and voting on the subcommittee-passed bills. I’m glad to report that, on the whole, the Republicans in the majority have not accepted the extreme level of cuts proposed by President Trump.
Still, they are pushing many deep cuts that are harmful, shortsighted, and would not be good for Maine. Throughout the markup process, I’ve focused my efforts on advocating for the programs that are most important for our state, either by supporting amendments to restore funding or offering my own.
Among the programs I’ve stood up to defend so far are Community Development Block Grants that our municipalities rely on for vital infrastructure improvements, TIGER Grants that have helped replace several Maine bridges, assistance to develop affordable housing, support for local manufacturing programs, and renewable energy grants for rural businesses. I have also spoken up against policy riders that would attack EPA ozone rules that protect public health and block ocean planning and coordination.
Looks like it’s time for me to get back to committee. We just finished one markup and I’m headed to another. Appropriations may not be the easiest job in Congress to explain, but for all the ways it impacts Mainers, I’m honored to do it.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives. You can contact her office at (207) 774-5019 or www.pingree.house.gov/contact-chellie.