As I write this, Congress is debating the still-unfinished federal budget for Fiscal Year 2012. While this may not seem strange, it should. The federal fiscal year for 2012 began on October 1, 2011 and will end September 30, 2012. The government has been operating on what is called a Continuing Resolution (CR) since October 1. Actually, there have been two: one that ended before Thanksgiving, and the current one that will terminate December 16. By that date, Congress must either send a bill that funds the nine agencies, which at this time remain unfunded for the fiscal year, or pass another CR, presumably until late January.
Unfortunately, this unruly way of funding federal programs has been the rule rather than the exception over the past decade. In fact, last year Congress gave up in April and passed a year-long CR instead of a federal budget for most programs. One of the problems this year is that no committee of the House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill; instead, Representative Hal Rogers, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, issued a draft of a bill he thought would work well. It was never debated or voted upon. The Senate Appropriations Committee did, by contrast, pass a bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education—agencies that fund the overwhelming majority of farmworker services programs, including the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP).
The House draft contains some serious problems for the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) network, especially the adult and dislocated worker accounts, as well as for the farmworker job training program AFOP members operate. The House wants to shift DOL from the program year (July 1-June 30) to the federal fiscal year (October 1-September 30). This shift contravenes a section of the WIA mandating that nearly all WIA programs be funded on the Program Year.
Most of the workforce development advocacy groups believe the draft bill proposed by Chairman Rogers would dramatically reduce funding for the adult and dislocated worker program, since they would end the advance funding mechanism that those programs have relied upon for over ten years. Now, the National Farmworker Jobs Program is not directly affected by this move, since we do not get advance funding. However, any strong threat to the basic funding of the adult and dislocated worker programs could have a negative impact on the NFJP. Many of AFOP members’ staffs are co-located in rural One-Stop Career Centers, whose very existence would be threatened by a sharp decline in funding.
The draft bill would also create other unintended consequences. It would subject every DOL program to the problems created by the inability of Congress to pass a budget each year, resulting in an increasingly and disturbingly common array of CRs. Imagine running a training program when you have to re-contract with providers and with customers every few weeks because Congress can’t pass a year-long appropriations bill. Moreover, the WIA settled on the Program Year to try to line up the training programs more closely with the calendars of community colleges and other educational institutions that are crucial to the kinds of training programs that unemployed workers need to have.
While switching from the program to the fiscal year seems like a benign action, it is fraught with danger during this time of almost constant cutbacks to federal human services programs. The House Draft stops funding of the NFJP at December 31, 2012. The spending bill for 2013 will have to fund the next nine months of funding, which (assuming it does so) then reduces the baseline for 2014 and beyond. While the appropriate action would be for the next Congress to recognize this anomaly and fully fund the NFJP and other workforce programs similarly scheduled, it is just as likely that they will choose to simply fund at the nine month level at a time when there is growing pressure to reduce spending. This is a risk that should not be taken, especially since there does not appear to be a strong public policy reason for changing the WIA funding year.
Our holiday hope is that whatever compromise the House and Senate reach retains, at least for FY 2012, the forward funding and program year components of the WIA system. Perhaps the changes the House seeks to make would be better planned for a time when funds aren’t so tight, when unemployment is back to pre-recession levels, and when Congress sends an appropriations bill for Labor, HHS and Education to the President before September 30.