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Senate budget would boost advance appropriations by $4 billion

Fiscal 2009 budget resolution estimates total discretionary spending is $22 billion more than President Bush's proposal.

The Senate fiscal 2009 budget resolution envisions a roughly $4 billion boost in "advance appropriations" above President Bush's request, bringing total discretionary spending to $22 billion over his budget. That is double the increase in advance appropriations -- a time-honored budgetary gimmick utilized by both parties -- enacted last year, which quietly got through with barely a hint of protest from the White House.

The House's fiscal 2009 budget resolution is not as generous as the Senate's in that regard, limiting their advance appropriations increase to about $2 billion -- but overall that brings the House's discretionary spending allocation to more than $25 billion over Bush's request. Advance funding, by which appropriations are provided for future fiscal years, generally does not elicit much attention in part because it can be difficult to explain.

"There's no reason to do it other than to increase spending," said Jason Delisle, an education analyst at the New America Foundation. Backers "want the money by any means necessary, but the trade-off is the debate gets confused and the budget lacks transparency."

Advance funding for education grew out of a timing quirk whereby the academic year usually spans parts of two fiscal years. Beginning in fiscal 1996, Congress began using advance appropriations to increase education funding for a given school year while technically staying within that fiscal year's discretionary spending cap, according to a New America report. Since then the gimmick has become wildly popular -- what started out as $1.3 billion in advance education funding in fiscal 1996 grew to $17 billion in fiscal 2008, the report notes.

The New America report said the use of advance appropriations makes it difficult to compare actual year-over-year education funding totals. It can also cause problems in future years should budgetary circumstances change. During floor debate on the fiscal 2008 Labor-HHS spending bill in the summer, Labor-HHS Appropriations ranking member James Walsh, R-N.Y., made the latter point. "My concern is that advance funding can cause serious problems if future allocations for this bill are not as robust," Walsh said. In all, last year Congress provided a $2.4 billion boost in advance appropriations above Bush's request.

While a great deal was made of the Democratic leadership's acquiescence to Bush's overall budget demands, in fact Democrats spent a great deal more than Bush wanted. Technically, they ended up at Bush's proposed $933 billion spending limit. But after factoring in another $11 billion in emergency spending that Bush did not request, Democrats reached the midway point between their overall $22 billion. "When it was all said and done it was about a split-the-difference deal," said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. In fact, it was even better than that for the Democrats. After adding in the $2.4 billion in advance appropriations and another $6.4 billion Bush quietly signed into law as part of the must-pass Defense appropriations bill, Democrats in total spent nearly $20 billion over the president's requested limit.