House, Senate Advance Budget Plans, But Not Much Changes for Science

This week's Congressional budget resolutions are about tax reform, not spending.

This week, the House and Senate continued to turn the annual budget process on its head, as legislators in both chambers advanced budget resolutions for the 2018 fiscal year (FY) – which is already underway, and for which most spending bills have already been written, and for which this week’s budget plans may not mean much.

The annual budget resolution is intended to serve as a spending framework for Congress. One of the things it does is set a limit on discretionary spending (which contains just about every science program) each year to guide and constrain appropriators, who make the actual funding decisions. It’s supposed to be completed by April 15, before the appropriations process really gets going. But this year, for a variety of reasons, the budget committees that draft these resolutions punted the work until much later. The House Budget Committee didn’t approve its budget plan until July, and it wasn’t approved by the full House until Thursday on a mostly party-line 219-206 vote. On the same day, the Senate Budget Committee approved its own budget by a 12-11 squeaker, and is expected on the Senate floor in mid-October. The FY 2018 fiscal year started October 1.

The lack of a budget resolution didn’t stop appropriators from doing their work, however. In fact, the House of Representatives has already completed its annual appropriations, approving all twelve bills on time before the end of September. While the full Senate has yet to pass a single spending bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee has made its own progress, with only a handful of bills still to be unveiled.

So the budget resolutions are mostly too late to serve their intended role for appropriators. As Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) put it during this week’s proceedings in the House, “This budget doesn't have anything to do with the appropriation bills. They are passed. They are gone. They’re in the Senate.”

In addition, neither plan does much to resolve the major issue of the day for science and technology funding: where the current spending caps will end up.

Under current law, the statutory caps on both defense and nondefense spending, which have been in place since 2011, are slated to decline by about one-half a percentage point below FY 2017 levels. The Senate budget resolution simply adopts these current-law caps (see the defense and nondefense graphs on this page). But it also doesn’t match what Senate appropriators have already done, which is ignore the small decline in FY 2018 and write spending bills to the FY 2017 limit instead. The Senate budget numbers are functionally a placeholder, pending a deal to raise the caps later, if Congress can reach one. If they can’t, the Senate spending numbers would tee up a mini-sequestration given current law.

On the House side, the budget resolution does match what House appropriators have already done, but it also isn’t allowable under current law, as it would take defense spending well beyond the current cap in FY 2018 (the Republican Study Committee and House Democrat budget alternatives, pictured in the graphs above and at right, also run afoul of the caps in different ways. Both budgets were offered as amendments on the House floor, and failed by large margins). The House plan, which also trims nondefense spending in FY 2018, faces little chance of becoming law, as 60 votes, and thus Democratic votes, are required in the Senate to change the caps. Again, if the caps aren’t changed, a defense sequestration would be triggered based on the House numbers.

In reality, this week’s budget plans are not about spending, but are almost solely about teeing up tax reform, as legislators in both parties openly acknowledged. This is one reason why some senators in both parties disparaged this week’s process as a “joke,” a “sham,” a “waste of time,” and “political theater.”

The tax reform process will play out as Republicans grapple with details and potentially large deficits, but the budget resolutions this week leave the 2018 spending cap situation essentially where it was before: with House and Senate appropriations that violate the caps and can’t actually become law, and with those in Congress who want more robust spending for national security, scientific research, and other priorities in need of a bipartisan deal.

Quote of the Week: “This is some of the most meaningless work that we do here.” – Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), during the Senate budget markup.