Low expectations rewarded: Spending bills on track for passage

Fiscal year 2012 can finally begin.

We weren’t really expecting a government shutdown, but now it’s officially not going to happen. Congress has largely finished work on H.R. 2055, the 2012 spending legislation, with both chambers approving a $915 billion ‘megabus’ bill (nine appropriations bills including the Labor-Health and Human Services and Education bill (that funds NIH). Both chambers passed the initial bill, and the House has approved the conference report: the Senate is expected to approve it on Saturday. Yes, okay, this legislation was due by October 1, and yes, several science funding agencies had to postpone funding decisions and negotiations not knowing what their budgets were. Still, the sense of relief in DC is rare enough that it must be acknowledged when it comes around.

NIH — Slight Increase (Before Across-the-Board Cut). After some technical fund transfers, the NIH program level funding is $30.698 billion, or $299 million over FY 2011. The conferees “strongly urge NIH to maintain extramural research at least at 90% of the NIH budget in FY12.” Other conference instructions include an admonition that NIH should maintain funds that support basic research, and language that eliminates the National Center for Research Resources and creates the National Center to Advance Translational Sciences, a top priority for NIH Director Francis Collins.

In total, program funding for labor, health and education would fall about $1.4 billion to stay within the caps set in the Budget Control Act. The Department of Health and Human Services receives a total of $69.7 billion in the bill, which is nearly $700 million below the last year's level and $3.4 billion below the President's budget request. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is funded at a program level of $6.124 billion, a decrease of $157 million below last year’s level. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) receives $6.476 billion, $41 million below last year's level. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), with a program level funding of 3.484 billion, is cut $27 million below last year's level. The megabus includes $594.7 million for the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), including $11 million for awards to public or private organizations or agencies to support activities to improve data coordination, quality and use at the local, State and national levels.

Across-the-Board Cuts. All of the numbers above will be reduced, however. H.R. 2055 includes a 0.189 percent across-the-board cut to all all Labor-HHS Education program accounts except Pell Grants. And – there’s more.

In addition to the megabus spending bill, The House passed two additional bills today that will have an impact on Fiscal Year 2012 funding if they should be approved by the Senate. (Debate begins today, Friday, December 16). These are an emergency disaster aid bill (H.R. 3672) and a resolution that provides a funding offset to the cost of disaster aid (H.Con. Res. 94). H. Con. Res. 94 includes an across- the- board cut of 1.83 percent to all FY 2012 bills except the Department of Defense and Military Construction — Veterans Affairs appropriations acts. Whether to offset the costs of emergency disaster aid has been a contentious issue in this session of Congress, and the Senate is not certain to approve the offsetting cut.

Payroll Tax Holiday Extended? The House and Senate leadership are still negotiating on a two month extension of the payroll tax holiday currently in effect. The disagreements are on the length of the extension and whether and how to offset the cost. Your blogger predicts a short extension will pass since no parties in Congress want to give their constituents the gift of a tax increase. The disposition of this issue will determine how quickly Congress gets to go home for the holidays.