26 April 2014

The Appropriations Process: Proceeding Under Regular Order...So Far

Josh Shiode

The Congress’ two week recess—time lawmakers spend at home in their states/districts—comes to an end on Monday (28 April 2014). When we last left off in this space (much too long ago) we were discussing how the President's Budget Request (PBR) for FY 2015 came into being over the last year and a half or so. As I write, staff for the appropriations committees in both chambers of Congress are collating input from stakeholders like us and from Members of Congress as they work on drafting appropriations bills for FY 2015. Today, we’ll dive into this appropriations process in a little more detail.

The PBR that dropped over the early part of March was but the opening salvo to the (public portion of the) federal budget-setting process, which is now underway in the Congress (the House of Representatives customarily acts first). As is usually the case, the opening salvo was more or less swatted away, with some Members of Congress pronouncing the budget request “dead on arrival.”

The US Constitution gives Congress the "power of the purse," the privilege and responsibility to set the budgets for the whole federal government. The federal budget is broken up into two broad categories: “mandatory” and “discretionary” spending. Parts of the federal government that fall under the category of “mandatory spending”—which includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and farm subsidies, among other things—are not funded through the annual appropriations process; spending in this category is dominated by Social Security and Medicare. Mandatory spending programs are established by acts of Congress and automatically funded each year according to formulas (e.g., proportional to inflation and population growth among seniors).

While none of the federal spending on astronomical sciences falls in the mandatory category, it is important to understand that mandatory spending has grown from 45% of the federal budget in 1990 to 63% in the FY 2015 request. With the federal government intensely focused on shrinking the federal deficit (the difference between total spending and total income from taxes and fees), this fraction will only continue to grow unless there are reforms to these programs or increases in tax revenue. Both of these mitigations depend on acts of Congress, which you may have heard are hard to come by lately. The growth in mandatory spending is thus a strongly negative trend for federal funding of the astronomical sciences, which comes from the discretionary side of the budget.

All agencies and programs that fall on the discretionary side of the budget are funded one year at a time through appropriations bills, and they are required to (mostly) shutdown if these bills don’t pass before the start of the fiscal year each 1 October. This particular responsibility rests with the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate, each of which is divided into 12 subcommittees with distinct jurisdiction over specific parts of the federal government. For the three primary funders of the astronomical sciences, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) both fall under the purview of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) subcommittee while the Department of Energy (DOE) falls under the Energy & Water Development and Related Agencies (E&W) subcommittee.

The first step toward wrting the actual bills themselves is setting and partitioning the total pot of discretionary spending for the year. This is usually begins with Budget Resolutions passed by each chamber’s Budget Committee and then reconciled between the two chambers. The resolution sets the total discretionary spending amount for the coming fiscal year, a.k.a. the "302(a) allocation,” and allocates funding broadly by “budget functions,” which map (though not particularly clearly) onto the jurisdictions of the various Appropriations subcommittees. This year is somewhat different in that the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (a.k.a. the "Murray-Ryan Deal") set the 302(a) allocation for both FY 2014 and 2015, so that has been done for several months already.

The next step is breaking up the 302(a) allocation into the total budget each subcommittee has for the parts of the government under its jurisdiction, a.k.a. it’s 302(b) allocation. These result from negotiations between the leaders of the Appropriations Committees and the Congress at large, with some input from the stakeholder community (read: advocacy). If these allocations have been determined, the results are not yet public.

As its name suggests, the CJS subcommittees' jurisdiction—everything that must fit in the same 302(b) bucket—includes much more than NSF and NASA, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US prison system, the US Census (whose funding ramps up midway through each decade; i.e., this year) and much more. With the top-line 302(a) allocation increasing by just $2B out of $1.014T according to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2014 and so many competing priorities within the CJS subcommittee’s jurisdiction—let alone the rest of the full committee—prospects for funding increases for NASA and NSF are slim to none.

Each of the 12 subcommittees in each chamber will write its own bill covering its jurisdiction, though the two chambers must come to agreement for all parts of the government before the appropriations go to the President for his signature. As they work on writing bills, each subcommittee convenes hearings to gather information from stakeholders and agency managers, while also collecting information via direct stakeholder input—letters, phone calls, face-to-face meetings, etc. Over the last few weeks, the NASA Administrator, NSF Director and DOE's Energy Secretary have all been asked to testify regarding the PBR as it relates to their agency. In some cases, they've been called by authorizing committees as well as appropriators; there are more hearings to come, most notably in the Senate on Innovation on April 29.

The extent to which each Member of Congress can influence the budget of any specific agency depends largely on their standing relative to the subcommittee with jurisdiction over that agency (with the exception of the chambers’ leaders, who tend to have strong, broad influence). Members not on the committee have the opportunity to submit "member requests” in support of specific agencies or programs up to some date prior to the actual bills being written; at this point, all these deadlines have passed. The committee staff are hard at work as we speak drafting their bills based on all the input they’ve received; it is now basically only members of each subcommittee who have a say in what gets into the bill or accompanying report.

Once the bill is written, the subcommittee will hold a markup, wherein amendments can be introduced and voted on. The House CJS subcommittee has just announced that its markup will be this coming Wednesday 30 April 2014. After passage, the subcommittee will report the agreed upon version of the bill to the full committee for its own markup—an opportunity for members on Appropriations, but not the CJS committee to have input as well.

Once each bill is passed by the full committee, it will go to the chamber floor for consideration (again, House does this all first). It is on the chamber floor that those outside the committee have another opportunity for input, but that depends on the rules used in bringing the bill to the floor. It is possible for the leadership of each chamber to bring bills to the floor, but without the possibility, or with limited possibility, for amendment (though this is much harder to do in the Senate than in the House, by design). The leader of the Senate, Harry Reid (D-NV) recently committed a full month’s worth of floor time in the Senate, split between June and July, for considering the appropriations bills.

Sometimes multiple subcommittee bills are combined into one bill called an omnibus (somewhat like the "stapler thesis” I put together out of the papers I published during graduate school). This can occur at various points in the process, and with different numbers of bills. According a recent Congressional Research Service report on the process:

Packaging regular appropriations bills can be an efficient means for resolving outstanding differences within Congress or between Congress and the President. The negotiators may be able to make more convenient trade-offs between issues among several bills and complete consideration of appropriations using fewer measures. Omnibus measures may also be used to achieve a timely end to the annual appropriations process.

This brings us back to the point that Congress has the ability to govern itself and set its own rules, an ability it exercises regularly and to both good and ill effect.

So we’re a decent fraction of the way through this whole, complex process already, basically on schedule to pass spending bills before the start of the fiscal year without crisis. And if history has shown us anything, it’s that starting on schedule is a great predictor for finishing on schedule. Wait, no, sorry, I had that backwards… This year is a mid-term election year, with many members facing serious challenges and some predicting that the Senate majority will change parties. As Congress moves forward with the appropriations process, we may very well see these politics come into play and potentially de-rail this whole “regular order” thing they’ve got going now. We shall see!