Last week in appropriations

The Appropriations process in Congress is a year-long cycle with fits and starts, and includes plenty of lobbying, grassroots appeals, lobby days, speeches, hearings and markups, and even creative promotions designed to draw attention to the importance of one program or another. ALA members and the Office of Government Relations continue to play a significant role in this process. Recently, for example, we’ve worked to support funding for major library programs like LSTA and IAL, as well as to address policy issues that arise in Congressional deliberations. Your grassroots voice helps amplify my message in meetings with Congressional staff.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have begun to move their FY2017 funding bills through the subcommittee and full committee process as the various spending measures to the Floor and then to the President’s desk. Last week was a big week for appropriations on Capitol Hill and I was back-and-forth to various Congressional hearings, meetings, and events. Here are a few of last week’s highlights:

Clock hands pointing to the words "time for reveiw"

Source: csp_iqoncept

Tuesday – There’s another word for that    

The full House Appropriations Committee convened (in a type of meeting called a “markup”) to discuss, amend and vote on two spending bills: those for the Department of Defense and the Legislative Branch. A recent proposed change to Library of Congress (LC) cataloging terminology having nothing to do with funding at all was the focus of action on the Legislative Branch bill. Earlier in April, the Subcommittee Chair Tom Graves (R-GA14) successfully included instructions to the Library in a report accompanying the bill that would prohibit the LC from implementing changes in modernizing the outdated, and derogatory, terms “illegal aliens” and “aliens.”

An amendment was offered during Tuesday’s full Committee meeting by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL23) that would have removed this language from the report (a position strongly and actively supported by ALA and highlighted during National Library Legislative Day). The amendment generated extensive discussion, including vague references by one Republican to “outside groups” (presumably ALA) that were attempting to influence the process (influence the process? in Washington? shocking!).

The final roll call vote turned out to be a nail biter as ultimately four Committee Republicans broke with the Subcommittee chairman to support the amendment. Many in the room, myself included, thought the amendment might have passed and an audible gasp from the audience was heard upon announcement that it had failed by just one vote (24 – 25). The Legislative Branch spending bill now heads to the Floor and another possible attempt to pass the Wasserman Schultz amendment …. or potentially to keep the bill from coming up at all.

Wednesday – Can you hear me now? Good.

In Congress, sometimes the action occurs outside the Committee rooms. It’s not uncommon, therefore, for advocates and their congressional supporters to mount a public event to ratchet up the pressure on the House and Senate. ALA has been an active partner in a coalition seeking full funding for Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act. On Wednesday, I participated in one such creative endeavor: a rally on the lawn of the US Capitol complete with high school choir, comments from supportive Members of Congress, and “testimonials” from individuals benefited by Title IV funding.

This program gives school districts the flexibility to invest in student health and safety, academic enrichment, and education technology programs. With intimate knowledge of the entire school campus, libraries are uniquely positioned to assist in determining local needs for block grants, and for identifying needs within departments, grade levels, and divisions within a school or district. Congress authorized Title IV in the ESSA at $1.65 billion for FY17, however the President’s budget requests only about one third of that necessary level.

The cloudy weather threatened — but happily did not deliver — rain and the event came off successfully. Did Congress hear us? Well, our permit allowed the use of amplified speakers, so I’d say definitely yes!

Thursday – A quick vote before lunch

On Thursday, just two days after House Appropriators’ nail biter of a vote over Legislative Branch Appropriations, the full Senate Appropriations Committee took up their version of that spending bill in addition to Agriculture Appropriations. For a Washington wonk, a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing is a relatively epic thing to behold. Each Senator enters the room trailed by two to four staffers carrying reams of paper. Throughout the hearing, staffers busily whisper amongst each other, and into the ears of their Senators (late breaking news that will net an extra $10 million for some pet project, perhaps?)

While a repeat of Tuesday’s House fracas wasn’t at all anticipated (ALA had worked ahead of time to blunt any effort to adopt the House’s controversial Library of Congress provision in the Senate), I did wonder whether there had been a last minute script change when the Chairman took up the Agriculture bill first and out of order based on the printed agenda for the meeting. After listening to numerous amendments addressing such important issues as Alaska salmon, horse slaughter for human consumption (yuck?), and medicine measurement, I was definitely ready for the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill to make its appearance. As I intently scanned the room for any telltale signs of soon-to-be-volcanic controversy, the Committee Chairman brought up the bill, quickly determined that no Senator had any amendment to offer, said a few congratulatory words, successfully called for a voice vote and gaveled the bill closed.

Elapsed time, about 3 minutes! I was unexpectedly free for lunch…and, for some reason, craving Alaska salmon.

Epilogue – The train keeps a rollin’

This week’s activity by the Appropriations Committees of both chambers demonstrates that the leaders of Congress’ Republican majority are deliberately moving the Appropriations process forward. Indeed, in the House and Senate they have promised to bring all twelve funding bills to the floor of both chambers on time…something not done since 1994. Sadly, however, staffers on both sides of the aisle tell me that they expect the process to stall at some point. If that happens, once again Congress will need to pass one or more “Continuing Resolutions” (or CRs) after October 1 to keep the government operating. One thing is certain; there is lots of work to be done this summer to defend library funding and policies.

About Kevin Maher

Kevin Maher is the assistant director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations.

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