"The crunch that we all knew was coming has arrived," House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-FL) declared earlier this summer when discussing the bill funding NSF and NASA. Young's words could be applied to many of the must-pass appropriations bills that remain uncompleted with a little more than two weeks left until the start of the new fiscal year.
There are so many obstacles to final passage of these appropriations bills that it is difficult to know where to start. For instance, last week Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) cancelled plans to mark up his FY 2005 bill which funds the DOE Office of Science. The reason is a common one: lack of money. In this case, there is a $750 million gap between what the House approved in its version of this appropriations bill for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and the amount that the Bush Administration requested. Efforts to find a funding mechanism acceptable to the House, Senate, Bush Administration and the utility industry have failed. "Things are looking terrible," Domenici said.
As bad as Domenici's problems are, those besetting the $128 billion VA, HUD and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittees are even worse. None of the major constituencies favors the bill which the House Appropriations Committee passed this summer. This bill contains a 2.0% cut in next year's funding for the National Science Foundation, as contrasted with the 3.0% increase sought by the Bush Administration and the 15% increase recommended by the Coalition for National Science Funding, the leading advocacy group for the NSF (to which AIP and several of its Member Societies belong.) While the committee voted a 6% increase in appropriated funding in the Veterans Administration health budget, there are complaints that this amount is $1.5 billion short of what is needed.
The appropriation for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the VA, HUD bill did no better. While the committee included a 3.5% increase for housing for the poor, the rest of HUD's programs were cut by around 4%. The Environmental Protection Agency saw the greatest cut - 7% - in its budget, primarily for water pollution control funding.
Making the VA, HUD bill very problematic is NASA funding. The appropriations committee's bill includes a cut of 1.5% in the agency's budget. This is 7% below the Administration's request, an amount so low that OMB Director Joshua Bolten said he would recommend that the bill be vetoed. If that threat was not enough, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), who represents the district where many NASA employees live, said earlier this summer that the bill will not get to the House floor for a vote unless $1.1 billion is added for the space agency.
Other less contentious bills are starting to move through the Senate appropriations committee. The committee has acted or will act on six appropriations bills this week, including the Labor, HHS bill funding NIBIB and the Department of Education's Math-Science Partnerships; the Commerce bill funding NIST; and the Interior bill funding USGS. No mark up schedule has been announced for the bills funding DOE, NSF, and NASA.
Optimists on Capitol Hill still hope to complete work on many of the remaining twelve appropriations bills (DOD is complete) by the target October 8th (or possibly 14th) adjournment date. If this does not occur, those bills that are nearing completion might be rolled into one large omnibus bill. This approach has been used to varying degrees in previous sessions of Congress.
Looming over all of this is the distinct possibility that Congress will head home for the November 2 presidential election after passing a bill that continues funding at the existing rate for those departments or agencies for which an appropriations bill has not been passed. Under this plan, Congress would return for a lame duck session after the election. Some even predict that funding would be continued until January, and perhaps much longer, leaving the next session of Congress to complete the work that this Congress could not do. The appropriations committees' chairmen are against this, as they will be forced to step aside at the end of this session because of term limitations. Other fiscally-conservative members would not be displeased with a months-long continuing resolution, seeing it as a way to restrain federal spending.