Congress: Dissecting the current federal fiscal crunch

Countless federal programs, including a disproportionately large amount of science and conservation programs, will be on the chopping block this year as Congress and the White House work to reign in federal spending in an effort to lower the deficit. The current debate focus is on discretionary spending which, according to Factcheck.org, accounts for 36 percent of total federal spending.

The White House typically releases its budget in February.  The Administration’s proposed FY 2012 budget , in an attempt to keep spending level for the next few fiscal years, cuts spending for every dollar increased. For example, while the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy budgets would see strong increases in the President’s budget, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and countless research programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture would face steep cuts.

The U.S. House of Representatives is particularly keen on curbing non-defense, non-security discretionary spending, which comprises 12 percent of the budget. The House Republicans’ recently passed measure to curb spending (H.R. 1), would cut funding for a number of conservation efforts, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses and water pollution.

The federal budget, which is under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Budget Committees, sets maximum spending levels (or ceilings) for how much the government can spend for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning Sept 30 and ending Oct 1 the next year. The budget resolution is technically non-binding and is not signed by the president. As an authorization measure it does, however, set funding limits and serves as a roadmap in the subsequent crafting of appropriations bills, which allocate specific dollar amounts to the federal agencies, programs and initiatives.

Rarely are appropriations bills wrapped up before the close of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. Generally, when appropriations spending levels are not decided before the close of the calendar year (in December), they are usually decided between January and February the following year, prior to when Congress begins debate on the upcoming fiscal year budget. It is uncharacteristic for Congress to continue debating current fiscal year appropriations spending levels well into March, a time during which the focus is typically centered on the budget for the next fiscal year.

The current fiscal situation is unique in several ways. First, calendar year 2010 marked the first year since 1974 that the House failed to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year. However, there have been several instances where Congress has failed to come to agreement on a final budget, most recently in 2006, 2004 and 1998. In fall 2010, Congress also did not come to agreement on appropriations spending for FY 2011. While the House and Senate both introduced separate full year spending bills, the Senate was unable to come to agreement on a final 12-month spending measure and the issue was semi-punted to the current Congress.

A  Continuing Resolution (CR) was passed instead, which continued to fund the government at  FY 2010 spending levels through March 4, 2011. The measure, came after three previous short-term CRs, which funded the government from the end of FY 2010 (Oct. 1, 2010) through  Dec. 21. Failing again to come to agreement on a measure to fund the government for the remainder of the current FY 2011, Congress most recently passed (and the president signed) a two-week extension CR, which expires March 18.

Congress is currently in a fairly unique situation of debating Fiscal Year 2011 appropriations spending levels at a time when it is in the beginning stages of outlining its Fiscal Year 2012 budget resolution. As a consequence, there is  a great deal of fiscal uncertainty for federal spending in the near future.  Also looming is the threat of a government shutdown if the House and Senate are unable to come to agreement before the current (or next ) CR  expires. Also, in mere months, the U.S. will reach its $14.3 trillion debt limit and unless Congress raises the ceiling, we will default, with serious economic consequences projected.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has declared his intention to  get Congress’s fiscal process back on track with the release of the House’s FY 2012 Budget proposal this April. In a morning briefing sponsored by National Journal on March 3, Chairman Ryan stated that his goal as budget chairman is to reduce overall spending levels. When asked, he would not outline specific programs to be prioritized. “It’s not my job to rank them, I’ll leave that to the appropriators,” he said.

Chairman Ryan was also asked about the 67 amendments that were added to H.R. 1, the House-passed CR to fund the government through the end of the current fiscal year, Sept 30, 2011. When asked by a questioner why the House-passed CR targeted so many environmental conservation programs, Chairman Ryan stated that appropriators looked at which federal programs had received the most substantial increases over the past two years and consequently targeted those for the most massive cuts. Ryan asserted that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received a 124 percent increase over the past two years, when including funding allocated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Ryan noted that when negotiating over the amendments, the House stands at a disadvantage in being only one-third of the key bodies involved (the other two-thirds comprised of the president and the Senate).  “We realize that we control one-third of the decision making body here…so on riders, we have to recognize that we come from that perspective,” said Ryan. He acknowledged that there would likely be at least one more CR before Congress and the president come to a finalized agreement for the remainder of FY 2011.

Chairman Ryan affirmed that mandatory spending reform has to be part of any comprehensive federal budget reform noting that “discretionary is the shrinking piece of the pie and entitlements are the growing piece of the pie.” However, Ryan maintained that “we need caps on spending” and advocated for statutory discretionary spending caps.

Photo Credit: Karthik n

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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