Our regular readers will have noticed that Congress was busy over the summer with the Fiscal Year 2019 (FY19) Appropriations. With funding levels agreed to last year, both the House and Senate were able to plow ahead and get much of their work done for the next fiscal year (which is set to start on October 1st). However, our regular readers will also recognize that that’s when Congress tends to hit a roadblock; this year is no different. The twist for this year is that a good amount of research funding is being held up in the process.
With the approaching mid-term elections, and Democrats sensing that they have a chance to recapture both chambers of Congress, Congressional Republicans have had to be very careful with how they move legislation; trying to bolster, or at least not harm, their own election chances, while denying Democrats any legislative wins. To that end, the Senate has used a minibus approach to move the appropriations bills — combining multiple bills into packages to ease passage.
The first minibus combined the Energy and Water, Military Construction-and-Veteran Affairs, and Legislative Branch approps bills; it passed both chambers at the end of June and has been in conference since. The bill in that package of most interest to the researcher community is Energy and Water, which contains the funding for the Department of Energy; see our write-ups for the numbers in both House and Senate bills. Once that comes out of conference, we will have an update.
The second minibus contained the Financial Services and Interior bills; it passed the House in the middle of July and the Senate at the beginning of August, and is now in conference.
The third minibus is where things start to get politically interesting. This package combines the popular Defense approps bill with the contentious Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS) bill. Senator Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) took this approach because Senate Democrats told him that the Defense bill would not move without Labor-HHS attached; this was to protect Healthcare Reform from potential cuts. Because the Senate Republican majority is so narrow, Democrats have the power to make such demands. The problem is that the House refuses to move Labor-HHS in this fashion, mainly because House Republicans want to make significant cuts to Healthcare Reform. This has created a legislative problem, as the House and Senate have now both passed the Defense bill but the House has not passed Labor-HHS. How this gets resolved is an open question, as both McConnell and House Speaker Ryan (R-WI) want the Defense bill passed before the start of the new fiscal year, if that’s possible. We will have a detailed write-up of the defense research funding levels soon.
The Agriculture and Transportation approps bills are being held up for various political reasons and their movement is not being pursued in this minibus approach.
Which leads us to the contentious appropriations bills: State and Foreign Operations (State), Homeland Security (DHS), and Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS). Regular readers will recognize that the CJS bill (House and Senate) is very important to our community, as it contains the funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), and NASA. Fortunately, these bills are not stalled because of concerns about science; CJS and DHS are being held up because of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and State is being held up because of various foreign affairs matters. None of these bills are expected to pass until after the election in November, as members of Congress don’t like taking difficult votes just before being in front of the voters at the polls. A continuing resolution (CR) is likely but how long it will run is an open question; should Democrats retake either chamber, they may want to punt the bills to the next calendar year when they are in a stronger position. And Republicans would most likely want to pass all three as soon as possible, regardless of how the election turns out.
Bottom line: FY19 appropriations are complicated right now and they are expected to stay that way until at least the middle of November. We’re going to have to let things play out, and see what happens in the mid-term elections, before the situation becomes clearer. Please check back for continuing updates.