Even though the still-pending disaster relief supplemental appropriations bill quickly bogged down over extraneous issues, House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., is predicting the upcoming appropriations season will be much easier to manage than in 1995 and 1996.
"The pressure is off us," Livingston said in an interview late last week. "We just have to pass the bills. We don't have to jockey for position."
Livingston said the balanced budget deal with the Clinton administration, which set the broad parameters for discretionary spending over the next five years, has created an expectation among appropriators that they can avoid long, messy battles over the 13 FY98 spending bills. "The process should work more smoothly unless the whole budget process breaks down," he said, adding: "I don't expect that to happen."
During the 104th Congress, the appropriations process did not work, forcing Congress to fund programs through a series of continuing resolutions and resulting in politically damaging government shutdowns.
While Livingston does not expect those problems to be repeated, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee is not as optimistic. "I would think we would have an easier time than last year if we don't see a lot of legislative riders attached to appropriations bills," Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., told CongressDaily.
Obey acknowledged that some Republicans this year have promised to produce clean appropriations bills free of legislative riders. However, Obey said that since the supplemental spending bill bogged down over side issues, "I'm more discouraged than I would have been earlier."
Livingston said, however, that Republicans have learned lessons from the appropriations fights of the 104th Congress.
"We are more cognizant of what we can get through the system and get the president to sign," he said.
Livingston said he hopes to finish work on the supplemental this week or next week, and that Appropriations subcommittees will begin marking up FY98 spending bills soon after that.
But because the budget process is still unfinished, appropriators have not yet received their overall allocation, which would allow Livingston to divide up funds among the 13 subcommittees.
The chairman said he would like the first appropriations bill on the floor the last week in June, but acknowledged House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has said he wants the House to pass budget reconciliation bills before the funding measures.
Livingston admitted that could make the schedule tight.
Obey was even more skeptical, saying he expects a battle over the tax cut measure.
The ranking member asserted that if Gingrich is determined to pass that bill before taking up funding measures, Congress is heading toward a "miserable or potentially disastrous September. It's the appropriations bills that have to be passed."
But Livingston said he expects to finish the 13 bills this year, although he conceded that one or two bills could be vetoed by the President.
A House Democratic aide said Livingston would be able to finish the bills on time if he were "able to proceed as a normal" chairman would, passing spending bills without legislative riders attached.
"I'm not sure that's going to happen," the aide said.
Livingston and Obey agreed that the budget resolution contains sufficient funds for discretionary spending in FY98, but Obey warned that the funding levels drop in future years, foretelling future battles over appropriations.
"We will have haggling, but I don't expect to see major crises develop over funding levels," Livingston said. "We're going to have our differences over programs."
He specifically mentioned education priorities, the Clinton administration national service initiative, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ounce of Prevention Council as potential battlegrounds.
Livingston said that if the budget deal calls for level funding for defense, "we're going to do that."
However, he added that he expects appropriators will warn that the low level of defense spending would hurt the Pentagon.
Discussing discretionary funding levels, Obey said the budget deal "punts for the first year or so to get past the next election."
Obey and the House Democratic aide said the ease in passing the spending bills will depend on how the subcommittee allocations are made and whether subcommittee chairmen target specific programs for big cuts.
The aide said, for example, that if the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee tries to cut the Women, Infants and Children program, the panel will face opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats.
The aide said that a key to an easy year at the Appropriations Committee may be the Labor-HHS bill, which contains many of the administration's spending priorities.
Obey said it is still unclear how the budget resolution will handle transportation issues or firewalls between defense and non-defense discretionary spending.
After that, the battles will depend on the subcommittee allocations.
"There will still be some tough fights" on specific bills, Obey predicted, adding that he could not yet identify where they will be. "I can't answer that until they allocate the money," he said.
Livingston said he expects the committee to continue to try to eliminate federal programs, although he warned that "the further you go down the road, the more difficult it becomes."
Some conservatives have become frustrated that the committee cannot eliminate programs faster, according to Livingston.
"They have to realize you dismantle by the same process you mantled," he said, contending that Democrats had 60 years to build up the federal government.
Indeed, some House GOP sophomores are planning once again to form an appropriations watchdog group that will warn members of possible problems with funding bills, as well as provide factual information about the bills.
Asked about the watchdogs, many of whom tried to cut appropriations bills last year, Livingston said, "Tell them to spend their time on entitlements." He later added, "These guys can sit around and play with the appropriations process until the cows come home and they're not going to solve the problem."
A new wrinkle in the appropriations process is the replacement of mild-mannered former Senate Appropriations Chairman Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., with the more intense Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, as head of the panel.
Livingston said that while Stevens has been known to express anger during committee meetings in the Senate, "he hasn't directed any of that at me. I have every reason to expect that we're going to get along fine. We look at the world with a similar vision."