After a particularly eventful August, with the chaotic end of the Afghanistan War, a particularly destructive hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, and, of course, the ongoing COVID pandemic, it’s understandable if our readers are saying to themselves “What’s happening in Washington?” With both the House and the Senate back in session this week, we thought a refresher was in order.
To summarize, there are four major items before Congress this month. Perhaps the most serious is the item the research community will have the least impact on: increasing or suspending the federal debt limit. It’s safe to say it will be taken care of but if it’s punted for several months, or just a few weeks, is anyone’s guess. Also, whether it’s done in a bipartisan fashion, or in a contentious political fight, will likely influence the other three topics that will compete for headlines.
Those other items on Congress’ September radar are ones we’ve discussed before: the Infrastructure Deal, Budget Reconciliation, and, of course, the Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) budget. All three are at different stages but their fates are interconnected.
A bipartisan group of Senators agreed to a $1+ trillion infrastructure deal in early August. While it quickly passed the Senate, it has slowed down in the House. Why? Any movement with regard to infrastructure is directly tied to the budget reconciliation process (more on that next). Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) promised a group of moderate House Democrats, who were potential holdouts with budget reconciliation, that they would get a vote on the infrastructure deal by the end of September; that’s supposed to be after the House handles any reconciliation bills. From a political perspective, it seems Democratic House leadership is not convinced that they will get what they won’t with the reconciliation process if they act on the infrastructure deal immediately. In short, it’s being used both as a carrot and a stick.
Earlier this year, there had been hope that any infrastructure deal passed by Congress would be expansive in what it covered and would include science issues. However, once negotiations broke down with the White House, a smaller deal became the way to go. That smaller deal is what passed in the Senate and is on hold in the House. But that deal also opened up a “second-track” for Democratic leadership to get their agenda passed: budget reconciliation.
Put simply, the budget reconciliation process is a means for Congress to adjust an already approved budget, by either adding or subtracting. This has many advantages, including only requiring a simple majority for approval (ie: no Senate filibuster). However, it has complications, too. Not all proposals are eligible for reconciliation, so the Senate and House parliamentarians will have to make determinations about the germaneness of any particular proposal. Also, the Democratic majority is slim enough that moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) could object to spending levels and wield considerable leverage in determining what makes the final package (this is also why the infrastructure deal is on the backburner, as an incentive for moderates to play with reconciliation).
The first step of this process is for both the House and Senate to approve budget resolutions; that happened in mid-August when they approved a $3.5 trillion blue print. Both chambers are now drafting legislation in their committees, following funding levels approved in the budget resolution and along the lines of instructions from Congressional leadership. Those activities should take at least most of September, maybe even longer.
We don’t have specifics yet for the research agencies’ budgets but a memo from Democratic Senate Leadership was released at the beginning of August and it gives us an idea of what leadership is thinking to accomplish. For example, the memo instructs the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Science Committees, which has oversight of NSF, NASA, and NIST, that any increases for the committee’s budgets should be for investments in technology, transportation, research, manufacturing, economic development, and a new research and technology directorate for NSF. The House committees have received similar instructions; in fact, the House Science Committee is marking up their bill today and NSF, NIST, and DOE Office of Science are all featured prominently in their draft bill.
What’s the catch? The catch is that budget reconciliation is controversial. For example, there are already accusations of “double dipping,” ie: spending that is covered in the infrastructure deal that is also being included in the reconciliation bills. And, as mentioned before, there are procedural questions about what is germane for this process. And let’s not forget simple politics: if just one Democratic Senator doesn’t agree with this process, say Senator Manchin from West Virginia, it’s not likely to pass, given that Congressional Republicans are united against giving a win to the Democrats. Nothing has passed yet, but we can expect at least a month of political wrangling.
Fiscal Year 2022 Budget
Finally, the yearly budget process comes up; FY22 will start on October 1st, no matter what. While it’s unlikely there will be a government shutdown, it’s equally likely that the budget won’t be finalized on time. That means a Continuing Resolution. Given that Congress’ attention in September will be taken up by budget reconciliation and the infrastructure deal, and the debit limit issue in the background, the budget is likely to be kicked further into the calendar year.
The good news is once the budget gets some attention and is finalized, FY22 is looking very good for most of the research agencies. The House has moved on all of their bills and generally approved healthy increases; the defense research accounts are a notable exception. With the Senate, their Appropriations Committee acted on the first slate of bills at the end of July and beginning of August. They may do more with their remaining approps bills while the reconciliation process unfolds, but don’t expect any real movement until middle of October at the earliest, with November being more likely. All in all, don’t expect FY22 to be wrapped up until some time in December. That means a continuing resolution before the October 1st start of the fiscal year will be in order.
All things considered, Congress is handling a lot of topics in September. Whether they will be able to get through everything in a month is anyone’s guess. The fact is all these items are interrelated; what happens with one will determine what happens to the others. We will be keeping our ears to the ground and reporting on any developments, so please keep checking back.