Can Congress Agree on a Budget?


June 2013

Can Congress Agree on a Budget?

We'll find out as legislators begin negotiations for the next budget cycle.

Events in Washington, D.C., can often seem far removed from our work and daily lives. Yet, the decisions that Congress makes and the priorities that are emphasized in the annual federal budget process have wide-ranging implications for engineers, whose projects often directly or indirectly require annual funding from the federal government. Therefore, as the Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations cycle finally comes to a close and we move into another contentious budget cycle for FY 2014, engineers need to consider how the FY 2013 budget cycle and recent events will shape the FY 2014 appropriations process.
March 20, 2013, was a rare day in Washington, D.C. After years of legislative paralysis due to intense partisanship, the Senate approved H.R. 933, the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, by a vote of 73 to 26, thereby funding the federal government through the rest of FY 2013.
After lurching from crisis to crisis, it seemed that there might be a return to regular order. As Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) stated, "This is an important step in breaking from crisis mode in Washington. Chairwoman Mikulski and I set out to prevent a government shutdown, provide flexibility for those implementing budget cuts, and produce a bill that both parties in both chambers can support. It is my hope that the tone we set in meeting these objectives for the current fiscal year will carry over to our work on subsequent appropriations bills. We must continue to work together to replace a last minute, shotgun approach to reducing spending with a deliberate, targeted approach."
Although the original version of H.R. 933 contained only two full appropriations bills, the Senate added a full bill for the Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations. The CJS appropriations bill funds many programs of interest to engineers, including the National Science Foundation. The final FY 2013 appropriations included an additional $221 million for NSF research, supporting 550 more grants and 7,000 more scientists, engineers, and students.
Unfortunately, the spirit of bipartisanship turned out to be very short-lived. With President Obama's FY 2014 budget delayed by two months, the House and Senate went ahead, introduced their own respective FY 2014 budget resolutions, and passed them. Although nonbinding, these budget resolutions clearly demonstrate that the fundamental divisions between the two parties and, therefore, the two legislative bodies remain as stark as ever. The House FY 2014 budget plan, released by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), called for no new taxes and a balanced budget within 10 years by cutting nondefense discretionary programs and entitlement spending (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security). The Senate FY 2014 budget plan, introduced by Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA), protects entitlement spending and uses a 50-50 split between new tax revenue and cuts to achieve deficit reduction. However, her budget proposal does not aim to balance the budget.
With the House and Senate budget resolutions already passed, President Obama delivered his FY 2014 budget request to Capitol Hill on April 10. The president's plan, to a certain degree, sought to broker a compromise solution between the diverging House and Senate proposals. The president offered to effectively limit the expansion of Social Security benefits. However, his plan would not balance the budget, called for expanded nondefense discretionary spending, and perhaps most importantly, his budget did not account for the across-the-board cuts imposed by sequestration. Consequently, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) quickly took to the Senate floor to denounce the president's FY 2014 budget request.
This brings us to the present day. Given the markedly different positions of the Senate and House, expect Congress to continue to use, as Senator Shelby put it, "a last minute, shotgun approach" to finalizing annual appropriations. This will make long-term planning for infrastructure and other projects very difficult.
Yet, there are reasons to be encouraged. Despite the intense partisanship in Washington and consequent delays in approving the annual budget, Congress has shown that it will take the necessary steps to come to an agreement about funding priorities to prevent a government shutdown. Moreover, supporters in the Senate and the administration have shown their commitment to protecting programs and funding of importance to engineers, including STEM education initiatives, engineering research, transportation, and infrastructure. Still, expect a bumpy road ahead.
Arielle Eiser is NSPE's government relations manager.


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