Congress Heads Home: What’s Left Unfinished?
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Congress Heads Home: What’s Left Unfinished?

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December 17, 2013

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Members of Congress are heading home this week for the holiday recess. Here is a summary of what they have accomplished—and what’s still on the table for January 2014—when it comes to the federal budget and sequester, the Farm Bill and SNAP, and unemployment insurance.

Federal Budget

What happened

The deal that reopened the government in October established two deadlines: Dec. 13 for a compromise FY14 budget resolution and Jan. 15 for final appropriations bills or another continuing resolution (CR).

The budget agreement forged by Senate Budget Chair Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Chair Ryan (R-WI) provides just over $1 trillion for each of FY14 and FY15 appropriations. It replaces $45 billion (about half) of the sequester in FY14 and $18 billion of it in FY15.

That means that for the next two years, the amount available for non-defense discretionary programs—like those of the Older Americans Act (OAA), senior housing, and energy assistance—will be slightly above the pre-sequester total for FY13. The House passed the budget agreement by a bipartisan vote of 332 to 94.

To pay for these investments, the plan extends the sequester’s cuts in mandatory programs such as Medicare provider payments (capped at 2%) and the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) for an additional two years, increases new federal workers’ pension withholding, reduces cost-of-living adjustments for new military retiree pensions, and increases airline fees paid to cover security costs.

What’s next

The Senate is expected to pass the budget agreement and send it to the White House before recessing later this week. 

Early next year, Congress will have to pass final FY14 appropriations, and that is likely to take the form of an omnibus package with a mixture of explicit appropriations language and basic continuing resolution provisions.

NCOA will continue to call upon advocates to make the case that OAA and other programs for vulnerable older adults desperately need investments, including Falls Prevention and CDSMP in the Prevention and Public Health Fund.

Farm Bill

What happened

House and Senate negotiators are getting close to finalizing a compromise on the Farm Bill reauthorization. Details are just beginning to emerge, but it is expected that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) will be cut by $8 to $9 billion.

The House bill reduced SNAP funding by about $40 billion, 10 times more than the Senate bill. The compromise reportedly doubles the Senate cut by focusing on Heat and Eat policies that provide an increased SNAP benefit for those who also receive energy assistance.

NCOA joins other anti-hunger groups in expressing concern that the bill saves money at the expense of reducing assistance for vulnerable Americans, on top of the fact that SNAP benefits were cut by $11 billion on Nov. 1 when stimulus funding expired.

What’s next

Leading House and Senate negotiators hope to approve their package the week of Jan. 6, and bring it to the House and Senate floors soon after.

Whether Congress will be able to pass a final Farm Bill reauthorization still depends on the details. Anti-hunger groups believe SNAP has been cut enough this year and point to data showing that spending will decrease as enrollment slows with the improving economy.

Any savings proposed from agricultural subsidies and commodity investments will largely be debated along geographic, rather than political, lines. NCOA will share any calls for advocacy once they emerge.

Unemployment Insurance

What happened

The Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program provides federally funded assistance beyond the basic 26-week period during times of high unemployment. The initiative expires at the end of December, which will result in about 1.3 million people immediately losing their unemployment insurance (UI).

Long-term unemployment is a particular crisis for seniors, as older workers are more likely than any other age group to remain unemployed once losing their jobs. There are currently one million long-term unemployed older workers, and 260,000 will lose their benefits later this month if EUC is not extended.

The House did not take up an extension of EUC, and several Democrats voted against the budget agreement for failing to address this issue.

What’s next

The Senate is not poised to take up an EUC extension before recessing, but Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV) said it would revisit the issue in early January. The Coalition on Human Needs is sponsoring a webinar on Dec. 19 to review the budget agreement and steps advocates can take to help extend unemployment benefits.

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