Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | September 21, 2017

Congress Funds Government through December; House Completes Work on Fiscal Year 2018 Appropriations Bills; Pressure Intensifies to Raise the Budget Caps

Following a White House meeting shortly after Labor Day, President Trump and congressional leaders moved quickly to increase the debt limit, keep federal agencies operating beyond the end of September, and provide $15.25 billion to assist states recovering from Hurricane Harvey. On September 7, the Senate approved the CR + debt ceiling + Harvey aid package (HR 601) by a vote of 80-17. House passage of the bill came less than 24 hours later on a 319-90 vote. The president signed the measure into law the same day.

Approval of the legislation extends government funding and raises the debt ceiling through December 8, 2017, giving Congress and the administration another three months to reach a final agreement on the fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget. The additional time is needed because the Senate has not passed any of the individual appropriations bills. Although the House passed a “security minibus” in July and an eight bill omnibus appropriations package (HR 3354) on September 14, neither are expected to be considered by the Senate because they exceed the Budget Control Act (BCA) cap on defense spending. Under current law, if Congress enacts appropriations bills that exceed the separate defense or non-defense discretionary caps, the White House Office of Management and Budget is required to impose across-the-board cuts to reduce spending to BCA-specified levels.

Cognizant that current spending limits are inadequate to increase funding for defense and non-defense programs, members of Congress are turning their attention to raising the BCA caps. Following the House’s adoption of the omnibus last week, Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-NY) urged her colleagues to immediately initiate negotiations on revising the budget caps. The top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Patrick Leahy (VT), issued a press release noting “It is time we get serious” about reaching a bipartisan agreement to “address the needs and the real priorities of our nation.”

A few legislators have expressed a preference for an agreement that would eliminate the need to revisit the caps annually. Speaking to reporters, House Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-OK) said he hopes congressional leaders will “look at a multi-year deal,” adding, “It just allows a lot more certainty. It allows the appropriations process to proceed without a lot of drama.” Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) also said he supports lifting the budget caps for multiple years but acknowledged that “it’s a question of what’s possible politically.” Although the appropriators are pressuring the leadership to reach a budget deal, no serious negotiations have yet occurred.

Previous agreements to raise the BCA caps led to a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2016 and again in 2017, as well as additional funding for competitive research programs administered by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy Office of Science, and the Veterans Administration. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) has signed letters to Congress and met with legislators on Capitol Hill and in local communities to explain how increasing the caps will benefit federally funded research. Over the next few weeks, FASEB will work other organizations in the research community to encourage the congressional leadership to support increased spending limits for NIH and other science agencies.