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We Need New Budget Agreement to Reverse Mindless Austerity | Commentary

Someone once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We don’t need this wisdom to understand the 2016 appropriations process is going off the rails by repeating past mistakes.

This week, the House plans to consider appropriations bills funding national investments in roads, bridges and rail; affordable housing; and federal law enforcement and criminal justice. These bills represent some of the most critical priorities facing our nation, yet funding levels proposed by the majority would diminish our nation’s capacity to build and grow.

Just weeks after the tragic Philadelphia train derailment, the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill would cut Amtrak, causing deferred maintenance and capital investments, and reject the president’s request for the positive train control technology that may have prevented fatal crashes in Philadelphia and the Bronx.

The same bill slashes discretionary grant funding necessary to build and maintain highways, ports and subways including Washington, D.C.’s Metro.

Cuts to affordable housing deny resources to transform clusters of poverty into functioning and sustainable mixed-income neighborhoods and eliminate lead poisoning in communities such as Baltimore, where this preventable and prevalent illness is a contributing factor in the cycle of poverty.

At a time when the need for respect and trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve has never been more apparent, the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill would eliminate the successful Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program, resulting in 1,300 fewer law enforcement positions helping keep communities safe.

We should be doing more to build and maintain our transportation and housing infrastructure and keep communities safe. These bills would have us do far less.

Making each bill worse are ideological policy riders that benefit not the American people, but powerful special interests. Christmas comes early for the trucking industry with provisions allowing longer and heavier trucks, delaying regulations ensuring truckers have adequate rest and preventing an increase in minimum insurance. The majority expands policy riders hindering enforcement of gun safety laws and meddles in foreign policy solely to undermine President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba.

While Democrats are open to supporting appropriations bills that invest in our nation and reject divisive riders, these bills fail that test.

We have been down this road before.

In 2013, the House majority plunged headlong into an appropriations process that all parties understood was untenable, given insufficient topline funding levels mandated by the Budget Control Act and the across-the-board cuts it imposed. After passing a mere three bills, the majority was forced to pull a Transportation-HUD bill from the floor that lacked the votes to pass the House. For the next five months, Congress dithered until the Senate and House Budget chairmen, Patty Murray and Paul D. Ryan, led an agreement that raised budget caps, creating breathing room for appropriators to do their jobs and pass a reasonable bill to fund the federal government.

It is not a question of if this year’s process will break down. It is a question of when.

The House will soon reach the point where appropriations bills cannot pass. In any case, the Senate may pass nothing, and Obama threatens to veto bills that lock in insufficient funding for critical priorities. How long will Congress dither this year before getting real with an agreement to raise budget caps and allow appropriators to do their jobs? Five months? Six? More?

It is time to get serious. In order to pass appropriations bills that protect our security and invest in our nation, Congress must pass a new budget agreement that raises discretionary spending caps for both defense and non-defense priorities. Failing to recognize this reality only wastes time and taxpayer money, and increases the risk of another government shutdown.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

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