Issue Date: October 31, 2011
All Aboard The Minibus
Each year, the federal budget process starts when the President publicly releases his funding request for the government and ends when Congress passes and the President signs all of the appropriations bills. This process typically starts in February and is intended to be wrapped up prior to the start of the fiscal year the budget funds, which is Oct. 1.
But it’s been almost a decade and a half since many federal agencies have gone into a fiscal year knowing exactly how much money they will have to work with. This all-too-common uncertainty among agencies comes because Congress is unable to complete the appropriations process on time. Instead, Congress has turned to short-term funding measures—called continuing resolutions—to keep the federal government running after the Sept. 30 deadline and to a large consolidated funding bill—called an omnibus—to finalize the budget, often well into the fiscal year it funds.
The current budget debate continues this trend—Congress was unable to complete any of the 12 appropriations bills that fund federal agencies by Sept. 30. Both chambers were then forced to pass a continuing resolution that funds the government at 2011 levels through Nov. 18. What’s different this year, however, is a push in the Senate to pass final appropriations not as one large piece of legislation but rather as a series of smaller “minibuses,” each of which groups three appropriations bills together.
The test of this minibus strategy is currently playing out as the Senate spent the week of Oct. 17 debating an approximately $128 billion bill (H.R. 2112) that combines the 2012 Agriculture spending measure with the ones for Commerce-Justice-Science (S. 1572) and Transportation-HUD (S. 1596). This minibus has broad support and includes funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and the Patent & Trademark Office.
A vote on H.R. 2112 was originally intended to happen prior to last week’s Senate recess. But debate on dozens of bill amendments tied up the Senate, so the vote is now expected this week.
Assuming the bill passes, the House of Representatives will then have to debate and pass it; any difference between the two chambers’ bills will have to be worked out; and then President Barack Obama will have to sign the final, full-Congress-approved bill.
Okay, that may seem like a reasonable amount of work for Congress to complete by mid-November, but nine other appropriations bills—or three minibuses—are outstanding. Some serious optimism, perhaps even some delusion, is needed to believe Congress can get all of this done before the current continuing resolution expires.
“So what?” You may be thinking, “Can’t Congress just pass another stopgap measure?” Why, yes, they can and likely will have to, but many members made it clear that they want to wrap up the 2012 budget and avoid another prolonged battle like the ones that nearly shut down the government several times this past spring.
Representative after senator after representative has spoken out on avoiding multiple continuing resolutions, saying the nation with its fragile economy can’t withstand such prolonged uncertainty. That rhetoric, however, hasn’t translated into either chamber doing its job and passing the 2012 budget. So another governmental shutdown threat is just weeks away.
Some members of Congress have indicated that a second continuing resolution may end up “catching a ride” on this first minibus. The stopgap measure would likely continue funding at current levels through mid- to late December.
Another option was proposed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman Jr. (D-N.M.) on Oct. 18 during the upper chamber’s debate of the first minibus. He suggested passing a continuing resolution that funds all federal agencies at 2011 levels for the rest of fiscal 2012. Interestingly, this would not bar Congress from continuing to clear individual appropriations, he noted, but it would give agencies a “modicum of certainty.”
“These repeated ‘Perils of Pauline’ scenarios have understandably shaken the confidence of Americans about their government and, more particularly, about this Congress,” Bingaman said as he made the case for the yearlong continuing resolution.
The irony of this situation is that the 2012 budget should be more straightforward than previous years as both the House and Senate agreed to a $1.043 trillion cap on discretionary funding as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which Congress passed to avoid the nation defaulting on its loans (C&EN, Aug. 8, page 12). Knowing the overall spending level should make apportioning the discretionary pie less complicated. Alas, today’s highly political environment in Washington, D.C., effectively ensures that nothing is easy.
To further complicate the budget picture, the debt ceiling deal also included the establishment of the so-called supercommittee—a bipartisan, bicameral committee tasked with devising a plan to cut some $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years. The supercommittee’s plan is due by Nov. 23, and then Congress will have a month to pass it. If Congress fails to adopt the reduction plan, automatic across-the-board spending cuts will take effect starting Jan. 1, 2013—inflicting pain throughout the government, but that’s another story.
So now Congress is faced with a pair of critical deadlines: first, completing the 2012 budget or passing another stopgap funding measure that avoids a government shutdown, and second, clearing a significant spending-cut package to avoid automatic spending cuts. How Congress responds to these challenges will have a long-term impact on the nation’s economy and scientific enterprise. Let’s just hope the members of Congress stay focused on those points and find a way to put politics aside for the common good.
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