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Political and Policy Context for the FY 2016 Budget

Budget Overview, CHAPTER THREE

Joanne Padrón Carney

In this chapter:


In some respects, last year should have been an opportunity for Congress to pass appropriations bills under something close to resembling regular order.  After all, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, commonly referred to as the Ryan-Murray bill, set a fiscal blueprint for the nation for two years, FY 2014 and FY 2015, and demonstrated that both chambers could support increases to discretionary spending above the post-sequestration caps as laid out in the Budget Control Act.    

The shadow of the upcoming midterm election, however, meant that policymakers in Congress had a truncated calendar to accomplish their legislative business before all attention would be focused entirely on winning another term. The wave of retirements of a large number of seasoned members of Congress coupled with an expanding number of vulnerable Senate seats ushered in the real likelihood that Republicans could once again regain control of both chambers.

The White House, frustrated by a Congress that it viewed as thwarting efforts to work together on legislation, used its executive powers to issue a number of rules and orders on topics like gun control, climate change, and immigration. 

House Republicans, on the other hand, felt boxed in by Senate Democrats on one side and the White House on the other, which hampered their ability to move any of their legislative priorities forward. By July, the political divide had widened with election rhetoric filling the gap.    

By the August recess, funding for FY 2015 through regular appropriations was a fleeting dream.  Fortunately, the Congress did not wish to relive the prospect of another government shutdown, and a continuing resolution was issued at the end of September that would fund the government past the November election and into December.

The final denouement, however, did not arrive on November 4, when the GOP regained control of both the House and the Senate as was predicted.  It arrived two weeks later in the form of an executive action plan by President Obama to implement immigration reform without Congress.

Angered over what they characterized as an abuse of executive powers by the President, the Congress — buoyed by the election results — returned to the lame duck session to complete the business of funding the government for FY 2015. Congress eventually packaged an omnibus bill to fund the majority of the government, and a continuing resolution to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through February 2015. The awkwardly-named “cromnibus” bill would allow the new Republican-controlled Congress to override the President’s immigration reform plan when it returned to Washington in 2015.      

In the aftermath of these events, President Obama released his FY 2016 budget on February 2, 2015, the second time his Administration has met the statutory deadline.   

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The appropriations process for FY 2015 began in fairly regular order, with the House once again taking the lead and Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) moving in quick fashion to mark up and report out of committee eleven of its twelve appropriation bills by July; but only seven of those were passed by the full House by that time, whereas the previous year the full House had passed only four.  

The Senate Appropriations Committee managed to mark up and report out of committee only five of its twelve bills by the August recess; and as is customary the chamber did not bring one to the floor for a vote.

Neither chamber’s appropriations committee, it should be noted, approved a Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill, which includes funding for the National Institutes of Health. That legislation is notoriously difficult to write as it includes a range of domestic programs under its jurisdiction. The relevant Senate subcommittee did manage to produce a bill, but it never made it to a full committee vote, while House Republican appropriators never even introduced their own bill.  

While the initial phase of the appropriations process gave the appearance that all was following regular order, the prospect that the House and Senate could reach consensus over how to set spending levels for differing priorities was never a reality. It has been close to two decades since the U.S. Congress has passed individual appropriations bill in “regular order.”  Almost half of the U.S. Congress is represented by Senators and Representatives who have never experienced the historical “regular order.”  For them, passing continuing resolutions to partially fund the government temporarily and then forcing out an omnibus bill is the new reality. 

Once the 113th Congress returned for its post-election, lame-duck session in December, it had eight working days to craft and pass a final appropriations bill for FY 2015. Angry over the President’s immigration plan, Republicans crafted a number of amendments to tack on to Department of Homeland Security appropriations to roll back the proposal. Thus, the majority of the federal government received a final budget to continue operations, while DHS became hostage to larger political issues. 

As in past years, the final result for the FY 2015 federal R&D budget in the omnibus appropriations bill was somewhat mixed, but overall R&D funding did fairly well, despite having to adhere to the budgetary caps laid out in the Ryan-Murray deal. Federal R&D ended up with an estimated $136.5 billion in FY 2015, a slight increase compared to $136.3 billion in FY 2014, and for some agencies an increase above the President’s request.  However, it still results in a decrease compared to the $142.5 billion R&D received in FY 2012.

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Discussions over the federal R&D portfolio and the future direction of the national innovation system were not just relegated to appropriators discussing funding levels. Authorizers also play an important role, and in 2014, discussions about the role of the federal government in supporting research and innovation ranged from how to improve and speed the process of biomedical breakthroughs, to how to improve transparency and accountability for awarding federally-funded research grants. 

As the larger budgetary debates unfold every year, scrutiny of where taxpayer dollars are going also becomes enhanced. And nowhere did that reality display itself than the scrutiny given by the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee over research grants awarded by NSF. Over an 18 month period, Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) requested information regarding the science and technical reviews of over 60 grants covering a range of disciplines.

As an oversight committee with authority over the NSF, the chairman expressed concerns that some grants lacked scientific merit, did not meet national interest goals, and thus may not necessarily be worthy of taxpayer dollars. 

Of the two dozen federal departments and agencies that support R&D, the majority fund research to achieve specific mission goals that reflect broad public interests (e.g., health, agriculture, defense of the nation). The NSF is unique among federal agencies in that its mission is to support fundamental, discovery-driven research across a broad spectrum of disciplines. But giving NSF the authority to issue grants across a wide array of disciplines and topics, does not make it immune to the political realities of operating within fiscally constrained times.

At the end of December 2014, NSF issued a new set of transparency and accountability guidelines, ostensibly in response to the chairman’s concerns. The new guidelines require that as part of every research proposal submitted to NSF, the grantee must include both a technical and nontechnical explanation of what the research will accomplish and how it will achieve national interest goals. Whether this will appease authorizers remains to be seen. 

One legislative vehicle where this may play out would be the reauthorization of the now expired America COMPETES Act of 2010.  The bipartisan legislation, originally crafted in 2007, established a fast track funding increase for the NSF, DOE Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  The objective of COMPETES was to increase investments in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering; disciplines considered critical to U.S. innovation. 

Unfortunately, the prospect for a third bipartisan bill deteriorated over differing positions on funding levels and language regarding the process of awarding NSF grants to meet national interests.  What resulted were three versions of a bill: the House Republican Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act, the House Democrats America COMPETES Act, and a Senate America COMPETES Act.  Each one with different authorization levels over different time periods, and distinct oversight language. 

Minding taxpayer dollars, however, does not mean that Congress cannot be visionary or ambitious. Last year, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), in partnership with Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO), launched the 21st Century Cures Initiative. The bipartisan effort served as a platform for discussing ways to revamp biomedical innovation and speed the development of new cures. 

Numerous hearings and briefings were held and white papers drafted that addressed a whole host of issues ranging from investing in medical research to streamlining the clinical trial process and speeding the approval of new medical therapies. By January 2015, Upton had introduced a 393-page discussion draft bill that will serve as the springboard for continued discussions and the hope of true bipartisan legislation.    

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While the new Congress will address a host of science and technology policy issues such as patent litigation, NSF merit evaluation, curing diseases, and energy policy, their importance within the public discourse will still be eclipsed by the most prominent debate before the Congress: how to reduce the federal deficit.

Last year, given the Ryan-Murray budget deal, the President released a budget request that included a baseline discretionary budget that honored the caps set by the bipartisan bill, and a second separate budget entitled the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI) that proposed additional discretionary spending above the FY 2015 caps. 

With the reality of working with a new Republican-controlled Congress, the President decided to toss the budgetary gimmicks aside and present a straightforward budget request well above the caps that reflect his domestic priorities.

Unfortunately, overall discretionary spending must still adhere to the post-sequestration caps as laid out in the Budget Control Act (BCA).

The mid-term election has ushered in a new class of freshmen and new leaders in both chambers.  Given the political divide that widened over this past year between both branches of government, there is little incentive for them to follow the President’s call to break the post-sequestration discretionary caps. 

If anything, the Republican-controlled Congress will explore ways to break the firewall outlined in the BCA, which required equal reductions between defense and nondefense spending. As the federal R&D budget resides in both the defense and nondefense portions of the budget, it could mean a shift in spending priorities, with nondefense research getting squeezed further. 

But controlling the political majority in both chambers does not necessarily equate to a smooth legislative process. At the time of this writing the future of the DHS FY 2015 appropriations was still uncertain as the Senate lacked sufficient votes to pass the bill that includes language to overturn the President’s immigration reform plan.   

Thus, the FY 2016 budget is not likely to be completed in a timely fashion, as history has shown. But there may be a silver lining. As the final FY 2015 budget showed, there are leaders and champions in both branches of government and from both parties that recognize this.  

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