House Committee Passes a Pair of Great Bills—What’s Next?

Stacie Murphy, Director of Congressional Relations

In the last two weeks, the House Appropriations Committee passed two spending bills with huge implications for both domestic and international family planning programs.

On July 1st, the Committee considered the State Department and Foreign Operations (SFOps) appropriations bill, which:

  • Increased funding for bilateral family planning through USAID to $760 million ($185 million above the prior year);
  • Provided a U.S. contribution for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) of $70 million ($37.5 million above the prior year);
  • Included the Global HER Act language to permanently repeal the Global Gag Rule; and,
  • Removed the Helms Amendment from the bill (though it remains part of permanent statute).

On the 15th, the Committee did the same for the Labor/Health and Human Services (HHS) bill. That bill:

  • Increased funding for the Title X family planning program to $400 million ($113.5 million above the prior year);
  • Included $130 million for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program ($29 million above the prior year);
  • Provided zero funding for abstinence-only programs; and
  • Excluded the Hyde Amendment from the bill. (Unlike Helms, Hyde is “only” an appropriations rider and is not part of permanent statute).

So, now what?

Well, what’s supposed to happen is that both bills go to the House floor (SFOps is scheduled for next week; there’s no news yet on Labor/HHS). There will be an opportunity for debate and amendments, and then a vote.

After that, it’s up to the Senate to complete its version of the same process. We haven’t seen the Senate versions of the bills yet, but they’re always at least somewhat different from the House versions. Once the Senate passes its bills, leadership will appoint a conference committee—a group of members from each chamber and both parties whose job it is to take the bills and create a compromise version. After that, each chamber votes again on that version, and the bill goes to the president for signature. Easy, right?

Except it almost never works out that way.

Things come up. Fights break out over funding levels or pet programs or any of a dozen other things. The bills pile up, and there’s often simply not time to follow the whole process through before the end of the fiscal year on September 30th—especially since Congress is in recess for nearly all of August.

What usually happens is that everyone agrees to skip steps here and there. Bills come out of subcommittee and go straight to the floor, bypassing the full committee step. Or bills get packaged together—into an omnibus when it’s all of them, or a so-called minibus when it’s just a few. Perhaps both sides agree to limit amendments to make the floor process go more smoothly.

And if they still can’t get it all done by midnight, sometimes in the waning hours of September 30th they’ll vote instead on a continuing resolution, or CR, which continues funding every government program at the expiring year’s rate for a set period of time.

(Or if someone’s trying to make a point, maybe there’s a shutdown, when only “essential functions” of the government remain open. But shutdowns poll badly and make everyone think even worse of Congress than they already do, so most sane politicians want to avoid them.)

Continuing resolutions can last days or weeks, as a stopgap measure when both sides acknowledge that a deal is close—or they can last a full year, a tactic frequently employed when there’s an election coming up and one side thinks it might be better off waiting until it’s over.

If you think all this sounds cumbersome and complicated, please know that this is only the barest outline of the actual process. The reality is even more opaque and confusing. Somehow, the whole government still chugs along.

With the same party in control of Congress and the White House, this year’s budget process should be more straightforward than most. And with bills like these in the mix, family planning advocates should be excited to see where it goes.

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