A last-minute agreement hammered out September 30th, just hours before the start of the new Federal fiscal year, between the House and Senate averted a government shutdown at least through mid-December. But the agreement spelled the end of Rep. John Boehner’s (R-OH) term as Speaker, as he announced his resignation — citing the difficulties of working with an increasingly fractured GOP — from both the Speakership and his seat in Congress, effective October 30th. While the move quiets debate temporarily about the final budgets for Federal agencies, including Federal science agencies in FY 2016, and keeps them open, it casts very little light about how funding will ultimately be resolved by the Congress.
The agreement struck by both chambers and signed by the President, called a Continuing Resolution (CR), will keep the Federal Government operating through December 11, 2015. In the meantime, Congress must decide how to complete work on all twelve unfinished annual appropriations bills necessary to fund the operations of government in the new fiscal year, which began October 1st. In lieu of passing the appropriations bills — which are mired in arguments over Republican adherence to strict spending caps — the CR will keep Federal agencies and programs running at their current rates of spending until December 11th or Congress passes and the President signs the unfinished bills, whichever comes first. If Congress fails to resolve the outstanding appropriations bills by December 11th, it will either have to pass another stopgap CR or the government will shut down as it did last in 2013.
House Speaker Boehner came under extreme pressure in advance of the October 1st funding deadline from conservative members of his party over the nature of the CR they were willing to approve. Central to the dispute was Federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Conservative Republicans, particularly those members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House, sought to target funding for Planned Parenthood after controversy emerged surrounding money received for the donation of fetal tissue obtained through abortions performed by the organization. Tea Party representatives sought to include provisions in the CR that would strip Federal funding for Planned Parenthood — provisions that would not be approved in the Senate or signed into law by the President.
Though the Tea Party does not represent a majority of the GOP in the House, they represent a significant enough percentage of the party that their opposition to a bill would require the Speaker to find Democratic votes to pass it, a difficult ask on controversial votes like appropriations measures. Boehner, realizing that the Planned Parenthood gambit in the CR would doom its chances of passage and lead to a shutdown of the government, argued strenuously within his own party about pursuing it. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had already reached an agreement with his caucus to pass a so-called “clean CR,” without funding prohibitions for Planned Parenthood, arguing that a CR wasn’t the right legislative vehicle for this particular issue. Boehner faced a less receptive crowd among the Tea Party members in the House. Instead of arguing the point, Boehner apparently bought support for a “clean” CR by indicating he planned to leave the speakership, and the Congress, at the end of the month. The House approved the clean bill on September 30th, and the Senate followed quickly thereafter and sent it on to the President, who signed it before the October 1st deadline.
The move signals a rightward power-shift in the House caucus. But ironically, the prohibitive favorite to take over the reins of leadership in the House is current House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who has been more politically moderate than Boehner in the recent past. Whether he can broker an agreement with the Tea Party faction in the GOP to allow spending bills to go forward by the December 11th expiration of the CR remains to be seen. As this goes to press, it appears the both the moderate wing and the conservative wing of the House GOP are pressing for rule changes in the party leadership structure to give their constituencies more of a voice in the leadership of the party before they will allow a vote on certain key leadership positions that will change with Boehner leaving. It is not yet clear whether they will get those changes or if the House will vote on new leadership, as planned, by October 15th.
Whoever constitutes the leadership of the House GOP will have to contend with the influence of the Tea Party caucus going forward, and several key votes will serve as bell-weathers for their effectiveness. The first is the December 11th spending deadline. If McCarthy cannot find a way to build a majority using a block of more fiscally-conservative Democrats, then he may have to acquiesce to Tea Party demands for tighter budget controls, which will likely mean cuts at Federal science agencies in FY 2016. Future votes include the renewal of the Federal Import-Export Bank and an approval of an increase to the Federal debt limit.
In the Senate, McConnell may propose a bipartisan two-year budget agreement as a way of avoiding the impasse. Details of the plan have not yet been released, but conversations with Senate staff indicate that McConnell is pushing for a plan that would hold all Federal spending to an across-the-board 0.2 percent cut for the next two years as a way of providing some certainty to those involved in Federal programs. While a 0.2 percent government-wide cut does not sound like a positive development, it represents an improvement over cuts required to meet the budget caps mandated for Federal spending by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which is current law.
Yet another possibility is that Congress will just punt on FY 2016 appropriations and pass a CR that covers the entire year, holding agency funding flat — prohibiting new hiring or new program starts. While this in many ways would be a bad outcome for the research community — it hamstrings Federal science agencies somewhat in deciding what they can fund in the coming year — it may not actually be the worst case scenario. If Congress does manage to pass FY 2016 appropriations, funding for key agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science could see even greater cuts to their budgets than the 0.2 percent across-the-board cuts in McConnell’s two-year plan.
We expect to get further clarity on how this budget process for FY 2016 and beyond will shake out after the October 15th leadership elections and, hopefully, before the December 11th expiration of the current CR. As always, we will have all the details in the Computing Research Policy Blog at cra.org/blog and in the next issue of CRN.