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A Budget Like None Other?

In Congress, Federal Government, Leadership, President on March 20, 2017 at 9:31 am

A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority — because without safety, there can be no prosperity.   [President Donald Trump in the introduction to his FY18 Budget Blueprint]

President Trump defines public safety in a way that accommodates a substantial reduction in environmental enforcement, diplomacy, and foreign assistance in order to spend more on the Pentagon and border enforcement. His zero sum approach adheres to current, statutory limits on overall Federal spending, thus there are clear winners and clear losers in his “blueprint” for the FY18 budget that was sent to the Hill last Thursday.

Donald Trump’s top-line budget — most details still months away — is the sort that Congress has not been seen in my 45 years working in Washington…and probably not for many decades prior that. Certainly not since some of those departments were created. Threats to cut the budget to some extent, yes. Largely empty campaign promises to eliminate departments, sure. But not a 10 percent increase for the single largest department that already has the equivalent of all other government agencies’ discretionary spending, combined.

Defense would see a $54 billion increase while the Transportation Department would see a 12.7 percent reduction, Labor Department 20.7 percent, State Department 28.7 percent, and Environmental Protection Agency 31.4 percent. Of the 13 Cabinet departments that are proposed for cuts only three are targeted for drops less than 10 percent. Only Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs are slated to see increases.

Consistent with the President’s approach to move the Nation toward fiscal responsibility, the Budget eliminates and reduces hundreds of programs and focuses funding to refine the proper role of the Federal Government. [from “Budget Highlights”]

The proposed budget does nothing to reduce spending in the aggregate. In fact, it challenges Republicans in Congress to set aside their first opportunity in a while for two legislative chambers and the White House to cut overall spending.

This isn’t the first time Republicans control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, of course. But it is as if it takes someone with no experience in government to know what are disposable missions and programs across the Federal government. Or, perhaps, it takes such a person to simply not care. Nineteen agencies — many small and obscure but among them the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Art, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Institute for Peace — are specifically identified for elimination. Other unidentified agencies apparently would be substantially weakened by cuts.

The president’s first budget message faces a predictably rocky road ahead. His own party may be in charge of Congress but that doesn’t protect Trump’s “skinny” budget — an average of two pages per department — from also being called “dead on arrival.” DOA is the usual label legislators apply to any president’s budget submission. However, it may be no more apropos than it is for Donald Trump’s first budget policy expression. A representative counter expression on Capitol Hill is that of fellow Republican Hal Rogers (KY) who served for six years as chair of House Appropriations.

While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive. … As General [Jim] Mattis [and now Secretary of Defense] said prophetically, slashing the diplomatic efforts will cause them to have to buy more ammunition. There is [sic] two sides to fighting the problem that we’re in: There is military and then there’s diplomatic. And we can’t afford to dismantle the diplomatic half of that equation.”[The Washington Post]

House and Senate members of the president’s party have found a lot not to like. Favored programs and agencies would be cut, if not eliminated, on the non-defense side of the ledger. Some Republicans have also criticized Trump’s trumpeted “10 percent” hike in defense spending as misleading and insufficient. The chairs of the Armed Services committees claim that in actuality the proposed increase is only three percent greater than what Congress funded for the current year. They want more. Then there are the Republicans whose firm ambition to reduce and ultimately end deficit spending is not served by the White House proposal. (The president’s new Director of the Office of Management & Budget, former House Member Mick Mulvaney, was in that camp just months ago.) Intentionally, the new president’s budget does not propose to change the existing multi-year agreement in law that sets an overall spending limit.

Suffice it to say that the Democrats see a document that is easy to oppose. They promise to leave to the majority party the job of approving some form of it, gladly wanting the GOP to be on the record as cutting popular programs. The minority party members already are positioning themselves as not responsible for a government shutdown should the GOP not have the votes to keep the government funded. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s statement warns, in so many words, “don’t count on us to help pass your budget.”

If Republicans insist on inserting poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force, they will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy. [Chuck Schumer (D-NY)]

As telling as the 62-page White House document is, the skinny budget will be followed in May by something resembling a full budget with greater detail that should formally indicate, for example, if the Diesel Emissions Reduction Grant program is proposed for elimination and how much less would be available for Port Security Grants. The May document might also be expected to cover other crucial detail that budgets normally provide.

The bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget notes that “by focusing only on discretionary spending, this budget effectively ignores 70 percent of spending and 90 percent of its growth over the next decade.” That is a reference, substantially, to the defense and national security portion of the Federal budget and the Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid entitlement programs.

As stated earlier, the slashing and shrinking of domestic Federal programs and agencies is proposed to benefit the Defense Department with a $54 billion increase, in addition to plus-ups for the nuclear program and border security. Nowhere in the budget document is there a reference to the substantial sums that various independent reports have identified as being in reach with the adoption of Pentagon reorganization and other efficiencies. Might that come later?

Last note, to complete the picture: The Trump blueprint for FY18 is accompanied by a supplemental request for the current FY17 that includes an extra $33 billion for the Defense Department, the border wall, and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

To read the Trump budget “blueprint” find it here. The 56th page has a table that provides a quick look as to how the proposed budget compares with current year levels.  Pbea

 

Holy Grail, PortMan!

In Congress, Efficiency, Federal Government, Infrastructure, Legislation, Ports, Water Resources on May 31, 2016 at 11:20 am

If you polled US port directors as to their major objectives in Washington, DC most would put at or near the top of their lists full funding, every year, from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. They would say, if a dollar is collected through the Harbor Maintenance Tax in a given year, then a dollar should be spent on maintenance dredging in ports large and small. One of the other things many would want to see is predictable, biennial water resource bills (WRDA) — say “wurda” — to advance navigation projects.

Well, this is your day, Mr. and Ms. Port Director!

The House Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (H.R.5303) is the timely followup to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-121), and a hopeful return to a two-year cycle. It also would make it possible for for ports to realize the long desired full-use of the HMTF and the Corps of Engineers harbor maintenance program to be funded directly — as in do-not-stop-at-the-Appropriations-Committee.

But before you start counting long needed dredging dollars…there’s a catch. (We are talking about the congressional budget process, aren’t we?)  Too good to be true?  No….but there is a caveat to this good news. Let’s give it a name….call it “Delayed Port Director Gratification.”

Here’s the story.

Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, made it a priority to include in the new WRDA bill a provision that would shift the spending of HMTF resources from being in the discretionary category and subject to appropriations to being mandatory. It would mean less constrained budgeting by the Office of Management & Budget and more funding for channel and anchorage maintenance. Overtime, the underwater infrastructure would be more fully maintained to design dimensions. Around five years ago the Corps of Engineers estimated that sustained annual funding of $1,500,000,000 would keep American harbors adequately maintained.

Today even those Federal channels in major ports are not kept at their originally constructed depths and widths. Small harbors often get the short end of the spending stick and the resulting deferred maintenance means a decreasing ability to accommodate commercial and sometimes even recreation vessels. A few years ago the Corps of Engineers reported that almost 30 percent of commercial vessel calls at US ports are constrained due to inadequate channel depths. (Note: Peter DeFazio also included a provision for the small, “emerging” harbors.)

Congress has come to understand that while Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund monies are authorized for spending only for certain port navigation and administrative purposes, the low level of appropriations has resulted in an accumulating, unobligated balance approaching $9,000,000,000. The HMTF has been a convenient pot used by budgeteers to make the Federal deficit look smaller, not to make port channels more efficient. To their credit, House and Senate appropriators have gradually increased O&M funding to the point where the FY 2017 funding bills include $1,300,000,000. Still hundreds of millions of dollars short of meeting the navigation needs in US ports and full use of HMT revenue.

Such mandatory or “direct” spending as the DeFazio provision would make possible could put the trust back in the trust fund…eventually.

When “eventually?”

Eleven years from now….and for good reason.

The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 requires that if Federal revenue is reduced, or spending is increased, it must be offset by a savings elsewhere or by new revenue. This was given the Monopoly game sounding name of PAYGO. A budget “score” indicates a proposal’s projected cost and that analysis has a ten-year horizon. If Congress were inclined to provide an immediate change in the HMTF statute to dedicate the full collection of the Harbor Maintenance Tax each year to be spent fully on navigation dredging projects each year the House and Senate would have to come up with ten years of replacement revenue for the Treasury.

However, if a change in revenue, such as the fencing of HMT receipts so they no longer would be blended with other Federal tax revenue, would become effective eleven years from now, that proposed change in the law would not require an offset under PAYGO. The House WRDA 2016 bill says it sweetly and simply:

Section 108(a). … [T]here shall be available to the Secretary [of the Army, who heads the Corps of Engineers], out of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, without further appropriation, for fiscal year 2027 and each fiscal year thereafter, such sums as may be necessary…”

The need for an offset is what has discouraged committee action to fix the HMTF in the past. Bill sponsors have largely left unspecified how to cover that multi-billion dollar cost…as a detail to be addressed at another time.

Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, introduced the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund Reform Act (S.2729) last March. Their bill takes the immediate gratification route, both to address the “full use” issue and to address complaints among some of the large ports that have benefited little by current law.

The senators’ Seattle and Tacoma ports require little harbor maintenance funding and much the same is true in the San Pedro Bay ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. S.2729 would redirect some trust fund resources to certain needs in those ports.

I will go into the Murray-Cantwell bill in greater detail in another post. Suffice it to say that by not waiting patiently for eleven years to roll around the bill likely would require an offset of 10 x $1,600,000,000, to use current year revenue as an example. The odds against finding consensus in Congress on how to raise/save $16,000,000,000 is enough to eventually discourage most any optimistic lawmaker.

The provision in the recently adopted WRDA 2016 bill is credited to Peter DeFazio, who has the support and cooperation of Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), but a little history is worth noting. The objective of direct or mandatory spending from the HMTF and other infrastructure trust funds was an objective of this committee back when Bill Shuster’s late father, Bud Shuster (R-PA), was chairman of the committee and introduced the Truth in Budgeting Act.

What are the chances of the provision staying in the bill and becoming law? It’s hard to say. Even the delayed gratification strategy will run up against opposition in Congress and the Executive Branch. I expect it will hear objections from the Appropriations and Budget Committees. The former would likely would lose jurisdiction and the latter just doesn’t like mandatory spending even if it is secured by a dedicated tax or user fee. The White House Office of Management & Budget thinks similarly. Long considered the fiscal and policy nemesis of the civil works program, OMB will have a hard time dealing with the idea of the Corps getting its hands on more money. (Legislative Trivia: the House Budget Committee that in a separate report made its arguments against Bud Shuster’s Truth in Budgeting bill was chaired by John Kasich (R-OH)).

To be clear, there are legitimate arguments to be made against making spending from the HMTF mandatory, but if one is looking for a solution to the long-standing problem of under investment in the maintenance of the nation’s navigation system one finds no other practical options.

Okay, so the DeFazio provision will encounter opposition, perhaps debilitating opposition, in the next months. For the moment let’s focus on who will like the policy change represented by the DeFazio provision. Those are the port directors. Also port authority commissioners, maybe some elected municipal officials, governors, and of course, the industries and other stakeholders who depend on reliable harbor maintenance. They will have to make themselves heard on the issue if it has a chance of staying in the bill.

And if it succeeds in becoming law, they will just have to wait until 2027, knowing that the wait will be worth it.  Pbea