In exchange for leaving out a key program protecting about 800,000 undocumented immigrants, Senate Democrats have pried several billion dollars in funding increases for other domestic policy priorities out of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
A document circulating among House Democrats and outside ally groups like NDD United labels the total haul of the deal as “a $131 billion increase for non-defense programs.” That figure is calculated based on how spending levels would have automatically dropped if lawmakers failed to reach a deal to waive so-called “sequestration” — the automatic annual cuts to spending that Congress has partially waived each year since 2012.
Compared to that same kind of routine sequestration mitigation budgeting, the deal’s increases to spending on domestic programs are smaller, a combined $57 billion over two years. That is a large number in a vacuum, but small in context of the massive figures involved in providing services to the public. The first year of the deal, for example, adds $26 billion more than simply canceling sequestration would have done — making the new cap $542 billion total, which is still less than the inflation-adjusted spending Congress approved on such services in 2011. Schumer has in effect won a 5 percent bump to domestic spending caps that leaves the long-suffering cash-starved systems like public housing far behind the funding levels experts say they need.
The document also boasts that the deal between McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would flout President Donald Trump’s will. Trump proposed a $54 billion cut to the category for Fiscal Year 2018, meaning the Schumer-McConnell “non-defense funding cap will be $117 billion higher than the level requested by President Trump,” the sheet says.
In addition to higher caps to govern the actual spending decisions that congressional appropriators make later this spring and summer, the summary offers “specific commitments for working families’ priorities.” McConnell’s team has pledged to give $3 billion a year to work on opioid abuse and mental health care, $2 billion a year to repairing health care facilities for military veterans, and $10 billion a year in new money for infrastructure projects. Here are some other highlights Senate leaders are touting as wins for Democrats — a kind of itemized receipt for the price of leaving the immigration program out:
- 10 years of authorization for the Children’s Health Insurance Program
- $14 billion a year for Community Development Block Grants
- $4.9 billion over two years for Medicaid service in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
- $2 billion a year to help reduce college costs
The deal does not extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, however, prompting House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to rail against the deal in an hours-long floor speech Wednesday that still continues as of press time. (Pelosi has some leverage — how much is unclear — because House Republicans are expected to balk in significant numbers at the deal’s spending increases, despite assurances from their leadership that the deal would partially offset the cap bumps somehow.)
Last month, Schumer’s team was willing to force a government shutdown to enforce the broader party’s insistence that DACA be a part of spending and budgeting deals. That resistance cracked within a matter of days, however, as Democrats backed down and agreed to reopen the government with only a promise to further discuss the legislative fate of those undocumented immigrants who got to the United States as minors and are often referred to as “Dreamers.”
Pelosi said Wednesday that the same promise of a floor debate and vote on the policy would satisfy her objections to the deal Schumer struck, according to the Washington Post.
No further details were immediately available on exactly how the various categories of domestic spending would be allocated. The $3 billion annual spending on general opioid and mental health work is most likely routed through the existing grantmaking processes of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which doled out a little over a billion dollars to state and local programs seeking to address overdose deaths and pill addiction each of the previous two years. That grantmaking work was initiated through legislation signed by President Barack Obama in the summer of 2016.
Though the deal sketched out Wednesday could slightly more than double the funding SAMHSA has already been putting in the field for this work, that comes up dramatically short of what lawmakers and experts have suggested is the bar for serious opioid addiction policy. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) recently asked for $25 billion over two years for SAMHSA and other opioid-directed agency work, for example, compared to the $6 billion over two years touted in the budget deal summary document. Shaheen’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the budget deal’s opioid funding.
But there’s no reason to think appropriators would only allocate the new money to existing grants work. The White House has pushed for new spending on old-school drug-war law enforcement work repeatedly, with Trump promising to “get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers” in a brief mention of the opioid epidemic in January’s State of the Union address.
With Republicans in control of the committees that actually decide how money gets spent under the budget levels in the deal, Democrats would have little leverage to steer the nature of these funding increases, on opioids or elsewhere. Committee leaders would likely also seek offsetting cuts in other areas of the discretionary spending world, given the conservative party’s baseline objections to deficit increases.