Congress returned to Washington today from its summer recess with few legislative days left to enact a bill to provide federal funding for the new fiscal year that starts on October 1. Congressional leaders continue to stress that there will not be a shutdown of the government, despite efforts by some in Congress to link passage of such a bill to the defunding of Planned Parenthood.
There is both good and bad news about the twelve FY 2016 appropriations bills. Appropriators in the House and Senate have completed work, for the first time in six years, on their bills. Of note to the physics community, the House has passed measures providing funding for the Department of Defense’s S&T programs, the DOE Office of Science, NASA, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Nuclear Security Administration, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, and U.S. Geological Survey. (Full analysis is here under Latest Congressional Budget Action - FY 2016.)
Despite this progress, work on the appropriations bills has largely stalled because of continued disagreements between congressional Republicans, and congressional Democrats and the White House, about overall spending limits. Democrats insist that the FY 2016 funding limit, set by a 2011 deficit law, holding spending to this year’s (approximate) level is too low. While House Democrats lacked a way to stop appropriations bills from moving on their floor, Democratic senators have prevented bills from moving to full consideration in their chamber.
A larger budget deal is needed to get the process moving again, similar to that in 2013 that raised the spending caps for two years. Then, as well as now, action was also required on the debt ceiling. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), instrumental in crafting that deal, acknowledges that a similar agreement between the Administration and Congress must be struck.
Arriving at that deal will take time, something which Congress does not have this month because of congressional action on the agreement with Iran, State Visits by the Pope and the Chinese President, and other matters. The solution will be to buy more time through a short term spending measure largely keeping funding at current levels. Continuing resolutions have been used 103 times since 1998. Two key items to watch will be whether attempts are made to include a provision in a continuing resolution to force a policy change. Congressional Democrats and the White House insist that the measure must be “clean” of any such provision. Also of keen interest will be the length of the time funding is extended. Previous resolutions have provided funding from only a day or two to the remainder of the fiscal year. Getting a resolution off Capitol Hill to the President will require cooperation from both parties. The alternative will result in a shutdown of the government in just twenty-two days, something that key Members of Congress insist will not be allowed to occur.