Continued operations of the federal government are assured with the signature of President Barack Obama on a bill passed by bipartisan majorities in Congress that largely maintains current funding levels through March 27, 2013. The President signed the bill today; the new fiscal year starts on Monday, October 1.
Enactment of this legislation is a good news/bad news story. On one hand, it demonstrates cooperation between Democratic and Republican Members of Congress. Passage of this bill avoided the shutdown or near-shutdown of the federal government experienced in previous years. At the same time, this stop gap bill is further evidence of the breakdown of much of the appropriations process. The House Appropriations Committee approved eleven of twelve appropriations bills, as did the Senate Appropriations Committee. But only six of the House bills were passed on the floor, and none of the Senate bills saw floor action. Despite expressed intentions earlier this year that at least some of the appropriations bills would be passed before the start of the new fiscal year, a variety of political factors prevented even a single bill from being enacted.
With few exceptions, current funding is extended for the next six months under this bill. The potential impact of flat funding on departments and agencies varies when compared to the appropriators’ recommendations in their bills that were never enacted. Total FY 2013 NASA funding would, when adjusted for program content, fall from the current level under both bills. The House and Senate bills for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science recommended a decrease of 1.5 percent and a 0.7 percent increase. The appropriators’ recommendations for total funding for the Department of Defense’s basic research programs were for increases of 0.2 and 0.7 percent. Funding for the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering were for flat funding and a decline of 0.4 percent.
Other budgets could have increased more significantly under the House and Senate bills. For the National Science Foundation, the bills recommended increases of 3.4 and 4.3 percent. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) weapons activities program funding increases were 4.1 and 5.0 percent (more about this below.) Recommended increases for the National Institute of Standards and Technology were 10.0 and 10.6 percent. The extent to which final FY 2013 funding levels will reflect these recommendations is unknown. Republican Members believe that if their candidates prevail in the November election they will be in a stronger position to reduce overall federal spending.
Passage of the continuing resolution, House Joint Resolution 117 occurred after only an hour of debate on the House floor on September 13, by a vote of 329-91. The bill received almost an identical number of affirmative votes from Republicans and Democrats. Seventy of the votes against the bill were cast by Republican Members.
In commenting on the bill, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) said:
“This 6-month continuing resolution, Mr. Speaker, will keep the government's doors open and its wheels turning until March 27, 2013. It's a necessary bill that ensures that the Congress is doing its job, even if this is not our preferred way of going about doing it.”
He later added:
“This CR is a good-faith effort to provide limited, but fair, funding for government programs. It sticks with the agreement the House leadership made with the Senate and the White House to continue government operations at the Budget Control Act-approved level of $1.047 trillion, thereby avoiding the perils of a threatened government shutdown. This legislation is very limited in scope. Funding levels have been held at rates essentially consistent with the current fiscal year. It makes minor changes to prevent detrimental or catastrophic or irreversible changes to Federal programs and to ensure good government.”
Committee Ranking Member Norm Dicks (D-WA) offered similar remarks:
“While I would prefer to be doing our regular appropriation bills, I support this continuing resolution [CR]. H.J. Res. 117 avoids a government shutdown by continuing the full range of Federal activities at last year's rate of operations, plus six-tenths of 1 percent. The CR also preserves the agreement on spending levels and the reforms in budgeting for disaster relief as set out in the Budget Control Act.”
Later in his remarks, he stated:
“I am very disappointed that we have yet to enact a single FY13 bill in the Congress even though we passed seven bills in the House of Representatives. I know Chairman Rogers shares my disappointment. A CR is not a replacement for the appropriations process. Federal agencies need much more direction than what is provided in a CR, and I believe this measure serves to underscore the need for timely, regular appropriation bills.”
The Senate also passed the bill, but it required many more days of consideration because of largely unrelated matters. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) commented:
“I want my colleagues to know I support this measure even though it is far from perfect. In fact, I would say it is not a good bill, but passing it is much better than allowing the government to shut down over a lack of funding. Continuing resolutions are not new. As some of my colleagues are aware, I have served in this Senate for 49 years and 9 months. During my tenure, this Congress has completed its work and enacted all of its spending bills without needing a continuing resolution on only three occasions. In 49 years, three times. This is not a record we should be proud of, but it demonstrates how difficult it is to agree on funding for each of the thousands of Federal programs that the Appropriations Committee reviews annually. However, never before in history has the Congress passed a stopgap resolution in September to fund the entire government for half the coming fiscal year. It is unfortunate that it has come to this.”
Committee Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS) spoke about missed opportunities to alter funding:
“The continuing resolution does not make reductions in programs for which the President requested less money in fiscal year 2013, nor does it make cuts that have been proposed by the Congress. Neither does the resolution increase funding for programs Congress or the administration deemed to be high priorities, with a few exceptions. The continuing resolution does not contain any new oversight provisions to guide agencies, nor does it include any new riders to limit the activities of the executive branch. In short, it puts the portion of government that we call discretionary on automatic pilot. Enactment of this resolution will, for the time being, avoid a disruptive government-shutdown fight.”
He later said:
“The resolution represents a lost opportunity. We have lost the opportunity to provide agencies with at least some certainty about funding for this fiscal year. We have lost the opportunity to make informed judgments about which programs are effective and deserving of additional resources and which programs should be reformed or terminated.”
The Senate voted early on the morning of Saturday, September 22 to pass this bill by a vote of 62-30. One of the votes against passage was cast by a Democratic senator. Eight senators did not vote.)
There are a limited number of exceptions in the bill language providing funding above current levels. Additional money was provided for NNSA’s weapons activities program and gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the flexibility “necessary to maintain the planned launch schedules for the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system.”
Members will not return to Washington until after the election. Confronting them and the next Congress will be the January 2, 2013 automatic budget reductions to almost every department and agency of up to 9.4 percent, expiring tax rates, and the national debt limit. Congress could act to pass final appropriations bills before the continuing resolution expires or decide to continue the current level of federal funding throughout the entire twelve months of FY 2013. Until these issues are resolved, federal program managers will be very cautious in their spending decisions since the bill requires “the most limited funding action . . . shall be taken in order to provide for continuation of projects and activities.”