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Op-Ed: Status of funding bills in Congress

In September and October, Congress has been working on perhaps the most new federal funding that has ever been considered at one time, $4.7 trillion in two major bills. As you might imagine, that generates enthusiasm from some, strong opposition from others, and some moderates in the middle want to cut down the cost. Last week, President Biden came to the Hill to press for this spending, but for now, the outcome for these bills is not assured.

In the lead up to it all, the influential Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Peter DeFazio, who has been in Congress for almost 35 years, was asked by reporters what he thought was ahead for the House. He said, “I’ve been here for cliffs and crises and wars, and this is going to be the biggest mashup we’ve ever had since I’ve been here, with the debt limit, with the government shutdown, with reconciliation and with infrastructure — and I have no idea how it all works out.”

We still don’t know. Last week, Congress created elbow room to keep working on appropriations by passing a temporary government funding bill, and the President signed what is called a Continuing Resolution (CR). This avoided a temporary government shutdown on Oct. 1 by allowing government spending to continue for two months at the current, or fiscal year 2021, rate through Dec. 3. 

While I would prefer government funding not come down to the wire, the CR is much better than a shutdown. It maintains our Interior Department funding for ASG government operations, and another priority I specifically worked on preserving, our Medicaid federal matching rate. 

The big ticket items still hang in the balance. 

First, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill contains tens of millions in increased funding for our roads in American Samoa, among other grants for us such as broadband. This has been passed by the Senate with bipartisan support. If it was decoupled fully from the larger spending proposal (as the Senate intended), it might gather more momentum. Many Republicans, like me, strongly supported the idea of a separate infrastructure bill for roads, bridges, ports, airports and broadband.

Unfortunately, the infrastructure bill has become a football kicked around in the dispute over a massive $3.5 trillion spending effort, potentially costing support for the infrastructure bill.

That $3.5 trillion Reconciliation Bill is opposed in current form by key moderates of both parties in the Senate, and for now, short of commanding 50 votes. The fact is, there is strong opposition in Congress to spending that much money when inflation is running high, and when federal spending in the past two years was already the highest since World War II. 

Senator Manchin is Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, which has oversight responsibility over American Samoa, and has publicly suggested cutting $3.5 trillion to $1.5 trillion.

I’ve kept my focus on American Samoa, working on being fairly included in potential hospital funding. We accomplished that as the bill includes over $100 million in health care infrastructure over ten years. I have been in contact with Senator Manchin to ask him not to cut our hospital funds, though he is intent on reducing the cost of the bill.

Finally, there is the debt ceiling, which must be raised so the government can continue to borrow funds to meet obligations. 

Funding for American Samoa is a small part of the whole, of course. My staff and I will be very engaged with negotiators on our funding priorities in the outcome.  

I’m reminded of a comment when I first came to the House. A senior Member said to me, a Member’s main job here is to convince 440 other Members that his or her district is the most important one in Congress! All of these efforts put down a marker for the next one. The late Senator Ted Kennedy once said the secret of his success, especially when his party was not in the majority, was move incrementally: two steps forward, one back, and keep going until reaching the goal.

With colleagues from the territories in both parties, we are blessed to generally succeed in keeping issues that matter most to us above partisan battles. In a near-historic narrowly divided Congress, whoever has the majority any given year, we can keep getting things done for American Samoa.

For now, I can’t improve on Chairman deFazio’s observation: “I have no idea how it all works out.” Stay tuned. I will keep you informed.