As Congress prepares to pass appropriations bills in the coming months, North Dakota’s Republicans expect spending on most federal programs to stay level, despite presidential proposed cuts.
Lawmakers reached an agreement setting spending levels for two years. Now they have to decide where that money will be spent for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. President Donald Trump presented what he would like to see last month in his budget proposal, a portion of which gave the North Dakota delegation pause.
“There were some things in the (president’s budget proposal) that were encouraging, but there were a number that were not so good for North Dakota,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., expressed support for increased military spending and money to combat opioid addiction.
“In other areas, it isn’t what we need,” Hoeven said of the budget proposal.
Hoeven and Cramer said they firmly believe they'll be able to keep North Dakota's funding priorities even. But while Congress ultimately controls the purse strings, Heitkamp said the proposal still sets the tone for the administration, which could make fighting for North Dakota priorities more of a challenge.
One such battle could be on agricultural spending, expected to ultimately play out in a new Farm Bill.
Agriculture is North Dakota’s largest industry, for which crop insurance serves as the largest safety net against weather damage and unprofitable prices. Yet the president is seeking a 23 percent reduction in spending, including less money for crop insurance.
“That’s not going to work,” Hoeven said.
Hoeven and Cramer said the goal is to hold current levels, and because it’s a fight they’re used to having, they’re confident in their abilities.
Both chambers are working on a new Farm Bill. Cramer said the House hopes to have its version out of committee before Easter and Hoeven said the Senate would like to have something ready to go, likely in April, at which time the bill has been promised floor time.
But when the president says it’s OK to cut crop insurance, it could affect Farm Bill negotiations, according to Heitkamp.
“We almost lost this argument two years ago,” Heitkamp said, when North Dakota and other agricultural states fought to keep crop insurance going.
Other presidential proposed cuts that the delegation doesn’t agree with would be to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps those in need cover the cost of heating and cooling their homes.
“A lot of budget hawks have tried to cut it, but it has such strong bipartisan support I just can't see it becoming a victim of budget cuts,” Cramer said, adding that the energy companies are behind it. “I think it’s one of the most safe items in the budget.”
The program also works to increase energy efficiency, and Heitkamp called it a cost saver because it often helps seniors stay in their homes instead of spending Medicare dollars to live in nursing homes.
Cramer expressed concerns over the president's move away from late stage research and development in the energy industry, particularly important to North Dakota's coal-fired power plants.
"A lot of good ideas can get trapped in early stage development and not get to the marketplace — whether it's clean coal, nuclear, wind, solar or storage — without federal government support."
Heitkamp had worries over funding to keep rural hospitals operating and essential air service that keeps flights going to smaller towns, such as Dickinson.
Hoeven said Congress is on track to possibly pass the Fiscal Year 2018 omnibus appropriations bill by the end of the month. He also thinks Fiscal Year 2019's appropriations could get through by the end of September, though the last time Congress passed those spending bills before the fiscal year’s end was 1994.