Appropriations Update: Shutdown Watch Begins

With Congress set to spend the month of August in recess, it’s a good time to take a moment to see where the appropriations process stands. Our readers will remember that when the Republicans took full control of Congress in January, they vowed to return the body to “regular order;” meaning passing the 12 appropriations bills before the end of fiscal year (October 1st). So how have they done?

Surprisingly, pretty well. For the first time in 6 years, both chamber’s Appropriations Committees passed all 12 of their bills through the full committees. The House was even able to pass half of their bills through the full chamber. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends, as the Senate Democrats felt their priorities were not being considered and they began filibustering the budget process at the end of spring. The bills have not moved for the entire summer.

The House Republican leadership has been adamant for the summer that the process would still move forward. However, just before the House chamber went on recess last week, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) conceded that work on a continuing resolution, to fund federal agencies at Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15) levels, would begin. Now the question is: will there be another government shutdown?

That’s an interesting question and the answer isn’t completely clear. While the shutdown in 2013 was embarrassing for all involved, no one really suffered from the bad press (“Exhibit A” being the Republicans making huge gains in the 2014 elections). As Congress will not have to go before voters for another year, the situation is similar to 2013. Throw in how many sitting members of Congress are running for their party’s presidential nomination, grandstanding on the federal budget now, and forcing a shutdown, is very possible. Also, there is a new threat of tying defunding Planned Parenthood to the budget, which Congressional Democrats have vowed to block, and President Obama has vowed to veto if passed. So there are plenty of reasons to see a shutdown as possible.

The flipside of this argument is that senior members of Congress, the members who were furious about the 2013 shutdown and who ultimately compromised to reopen the government, will not allow the budget to be hijacked again. Also, the Republicans are under a great deal of pressure to be seen as able to govern effectively; a shutdown can be used to show they can’t. As well, since both appropriations committees have done their work (i.e.: preparing their 12 bills), they will require much less time to get an omnibus bill together. Lastly, a presidential election is not a midterm election; the voters who come out are less partisan, and care more about the parties working together, and a memory of two shutdowns in four years may be too much for voters to forget.

The science policy community in Washington is divided between pessimists and optimists on the budget:

  • The pessimists see a shutdown as very likely, and a year long CR as the final outcome. This would not be good for anyone, as budget sequestration is still set to restart in October. Any across-the-board cuts would be worsened by the cuts due to inflation.
  • The optimists see a continuing resolution, or a series of CRs, until the end of the year, with no shutdown, and another grand budget deal (like the Ryan-Murray Budget Agreement happening then. This is more likely to be good, but there are no guarantees, especially for science accounts.

Of course, these outcomes aren’t the only possibility, just the likely outcomes. Both sides have their arguments, but it is still very much “reading tea leaves” at this point. We’ll have to get through the August Recess first, and see how much progress, or lack there-of, happens on CR negotiations. Keep checking back for more updates.

Appropriations Update: Shutdown Watch Begins