With the start of the new fiscal year less than three weeks away, Congress and the Bush Administration have not settled on a strategy to fund R&D programs in the coming year. While the new chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have expressed a desire for "regular order" by passing each of the appropriations bills separately, time is running out. One alternative calls for program funding to be continued at current levels, and in some instances, cut.
Congress has a spotty record of getting appropriations bills passed on time, with recent sessions rarely passing all of the appropriations bills by October 1. Congress usually buys itself more time by passing short term funding bills called continuing resolutions that maintain the current level of program funding. In some instances, this additional time is enough for Congress to complete the process. Time constraints, institutional inertia, and political conflict have made the budget process increasingly problematic, resulting in Congress giving up on its own procedures and bundling uncompleted bills into a single "omnibus" bill. This happened in both 2003 and 2004, resulting in bills of over 3,000 pages. A common complaint about omnibus bills is that no one knows what is in them, and that they often contain questionable provisions.
As troubled as this outcome could be, there is a worse alternative that is being discussed by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-CA). Under this plan, congressional leaders would write a continuing resolution for all of FY 2006. If adopted, program funding would be set at whatever level is lowest: current spending, the House appropriations level, or the Senate appropriations level. In the best case, funding would remain flat. In the worse case, program funding that one chamber voted to reduce or terminate would become the new level. Using this scenario, the Advanced Technology Program would be terminated, since that is what the House-passed bill called for. This approach has been discussed in previous years, and is appealing to those advocating reduced government spending.
Lewis guided all of the appropriations bills through the House before it left for the July 4 recess. In contrast, the Senate returned to Washington after Labor Day with only half of its versions of the appropriations bills finished. President Bush has signed only two FY 2006 appropriations bills into law: the Interior and Environment bill and the Legislative Branch bill. Lewis warned no earmarked projects would be included in a year-long continuing resolution, which undoubtedly caught the eye of many Members of Congress.
Congress is now expected to be in session until at least the end of November, with some projections that Members might be in Washington until mid-December. Hurricane Katrina has definitely impacted the process, and will continue to do so for many more weeks. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran represents Mississippi, a state hard-hit by Katrina. Understandably, Cochran and his staff are devoting much of their energy to alleviating the destruction and misery caused by this storm, and there is some thinking that the outcome of this year's appropriations cycle will depend on Cochran's thinking. House Appropriator Lewis said that both he and Cochran are determined not to have an omnibus bill, with Lewis saying that a year-long continuing resolution was preferable if the individual bills could not be passed.
A future FYI will review the status of appropriations bills of interest to the physics community.