In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a bill into federal law that authorized the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. As we all know, the program provides grants to local fire departments which can be used to purchase equipment and apparatus, use for training, in addition to conducting research and developing fire and life safety programs.
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed his name to legislation that authorized the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant Program. This program enables fire departments to use federal grants to augment staffing in volunteer, career and combination departments. To date, the two programs combined have awarded over $12 billion in grants to local fire departments and other fire organizations.
I can still recall when Congress approved the original authorizing legislation that established the AFG program. The word on the street was that the federal government would soon be awarding grants to local fire departments. Not so fast, as I had to remind many members of the fire and emergency services. The legislation signed by both Presidents Clinton and Bush authorized these two programs. Once they were authorized, Congress had to appropriate funding for them as they have done every year since.
The appropriations process appears to be a smooth process of actions — at least on paper — but in reality, it can make your head spin. Before enacting appropriations legislation, the president is expected to submit a budget proposal to Congress outlining the administration’s spending priorities in the upcoming fiscal year, followed by both the House and Senate approving their resolutions and then reaching a final agreement on a joint resolution. Budgets are non-binding: neither Congress nor the administration is required to follow them. But they do provide a blueprint on fiscal policies for the upcoming fiscal year. Sadly, since 1975, the House and Senate have reached an agreement on a concurrent budget resolution only six times, which is one of the main reasons why the federal fiscal policy has run amok.
Regardless of whether the House and Senate approve a budget resolution, Congress is also expected to approve 12 separate appropriations measures that will fund discretionary programs (Mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare are non-discretionary and formula-based). Here again, their track record is dubious at best. Since 1973, Congress has completed work on all 12 spending bills just four times, with the last time occurring in 1997.
To avoid a government shutdown, Congress often resorts to approving a spending measure called a Continuing Resolution (CR). It has become common practice in recent years to approve a CR to keep the government functioning. But CR’s have many drawbacks, most importantly they maintain funding at current levels – and that is for both good and outdated programs. It is something to keep in mind when you have wondered why USFA and the AFG and SAFER grant programs did not receive increases in certain fiscal years.
As Congress begins deliberations on appropriations legislation for FY22, CFSI and the other national fire service organizations will once again advocate for additional funding for federal fire service programs. You and your colleagues must continue to work with us by advocating for your members of Congress the need for increased funding for federal programs that benefit our nation’s fire and emergency services.
While the federal budget is in dire need of repair, keep in mind that it has provided over $12 billion in direct funding to local fire departments. Therefore, we will continue to find ways to deliver our message to members of Congress and work within the system to ensure that Congress continues to address the needs of our nation’s first responders regardless of the appropriation process used by Congress.