Federal appropriations: Is Congress on track to enact funding legislation by the end of September?

Signs point to a continuing resolution

As of July 22, 2015, Congress has seventeen legislative days before October 1 to enact twelve spending bills. That’s very unlikely to happen in the absence of a budget agreement between the majority and minority parties.

The Appropriations Committees have worked diligently to develop and report the spending bills.  All twelve spending bills have been approved by the House Appropriations Committee, and by the end of this week the Senate Appropriations Committee will have approved twelve as well. Six of the twelve bills have been passed in the full House, but none have been approved in the Senate.

There are several reasons these funding bills are not advancing in the House and Senate.   House Republicans and Democrats are at an impasse over whether Confederate flags may be allowed in federal cemeteries and that disagreement is holding up remaining bills in the House. But there’s more. The White House is threatening to veto the bills unless the threat of sequestration is removed, and thus the Democrats are mostly voting against the bills.  That means that the Republicans have to generate enough votes to pass the bills on their own, and a contingent of fiscally conservative Republicans prefer to vote no, believing the bills spend too much. See the APA Science Advocacy Blog entry on the House and Senate Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bills to get a sense of the issues in play. 

The White House has also said it will insist on parity between defense and non-defense accounts, meaning if Congress chooses to break the spending caps to spend more money for defense programs, it must also do it for non-defense programs.  The budget approved by the House allows more money for defense spending by adding funds in an Overseas Contingency Operations account, a maneuver being used by Republicans to increase defense spending in a way that is not subject to the budget caps. For their part, Democrats have called for negotiations to raise both the defense and non-defense caps. 

The alternatives are 1) a government shutdown (or at least shutdowns of portions of the government) if spending bills are not enacted, or 2) continuing resolutions (CRs) to keep the bills paid without enacting new laws.  A CR, or a series of CRs, seems the most likely outcome but the price is high.  CRs usually do not change the laws, they merely keep the funds flowing as they did in the last fiscal year.  So the Appropriations Committees’ efforts to change federal spending by increasing or decreasing program budgets would not come to pass. 

The Non-defense Discretionary (NDD) United coalition, in which APA is active, met on July 21 on Capitol Hill to hear from three members of Congress who are calling for a broader budget deal. Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) expressed frustration that negotiations between the parties have not yet started.  “If we must rely on a long-term CR or government shutdown, everybody loses,” said Rep. Lowey. “We are headed for a shutdown, by neglect if not by design,” said Rep. Van Hollen, the ranking minority member on the House Budget Committee. Through mid-August the coalition will be seeking support and collecting organizational signatures on a letter urging Congress to develop a broad agreement that does not rely solely on spending cuts to reduce the deficit. The letter concludes, “There is bipartisan agreement that sequestration is bad policy and ultimately hurts our nation. It’s time to end the era of austerity.”  

What is missing at the moment are two or more well-placed members of the House and Senate, a la Paul Ryan and Patty Murray, who are willing to press forward to develop an agreement that can cross party and ideological boundaries. Anybody? Anybody?  

For more information please contact Pat Kobor in the APA Science Government Relations Office.