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Congress Debates Spending Priorities

September 8, 2021

September will be a busy and complicated month on Capitol Hill as Congressional leaders push to meet key deadlines on major spending legislation amid intraparty disagreements over the size and scope of those plans.

Key to watch for FABBS members is the status of Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations. Federal funding expires at the end of September, and Congress is increasingly likely to pass a stopgap continuing resolution (CR) to avoid a government shutdown. CRs disrupt the regular appropriations process, preventing agencies from instituting new programs and creating uncertainty that makes planning ahead difficult. If Congress is unable to pass regular appropriations, the work that has already been done to support funding increases and policy wins for the behavioral and brain sciences may be jeopardized. FABBS has joined community members in urging Congress to pass regular appropriations bills instead of normalizing CRs.

Also important for federal science budgets is the Democratic budget reconciliation plan (see details below). This legislation is not sure to pass, but could provide significant funding boosts for federal research and development in the coming years.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee meets on September 9 to consider its portion of the budget reconciliation legislation. The committee has released draft text, which includes $11.03 billion of new money for the National Science Foundation over the next 10 years. This includes $3.43 billion for research infrastructure and $7.55 billion for research, scholarships, and fellowships, of which $700 million must go to Historically Black Colleges and universities and other Minority Serving Institutions. The House Committee on Education and Labor has also released draft text which would provide $2.00 billion over ten years to improve research infrastructure at minority serving institutions. Draft legislation that may include funding for other agencies relevant to FABBS members, such as NIH, is not yet available. Expect to see more details in the coming weeks.

House and Senate Committees are currently crafting the legislative text of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that aims to encompass much of President Biden’s legislative agenda. This process requires only 50 votes in the Senate, allowing Democrats to enact major party priorities, such as prescription drug pricing reform and free community college, without any Republican votes. Most recently, Democrats used the budget reconciliation process to pass additional COVID relief in the American Rescue Plan and, before that, Republicans used it to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017.

Democratic leadership has vowed to pass the legislation this fall. In the House of Representatives, the legislation has been tied to a bipartisan infrastructure bill set for a vote on September 27. Due to conflict within the Democratic party, it is unlikely that one bill can pass without the other, meaning that House leaders will have to hold both votes by the end of September.

Senate Democratic leadership released an outline of provisions they would like to see included in the reconciliation package, though details will be determined by individual committees over the coming days and weeks. These details will determine the ultimate size of the bill, how much spending is paid for, or deficit-funded, and which programs and priorities are included. Here is a good explainer of the budget reconciliation process.

The House and Senate will need to come to agreement on the final legislation. If the appropriations process is any indication, and given the tight timelines, the process is likely to move quickly with little opportunity for input from the science community.

Key Dates:

September 27 – Bipartisan Infrastructure Package

  • On August 10, the Senate passed a nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill after lengthy negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and the White House.
  • Moderate Democrats in the House of Representatives want to enact the bipartisan infrastructure package as quickly as possible.
  • Progressive Democrats have pledged that they will not support the bipartisan legislation unless it is paired with the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package and Speaker Pelosi has committed to passing both bills together.
  • Moderates extracted concessions from House leadership, setting September 27 as a hard deadline for a vote on the bipartisan legislation.
  • Ongoing disputes over the size of the reconciliation bill make it unclear how things will unfold. Will the reconciliation bill be ready and have the votes to pass by September 27? Will Progressives hold their ground, voting down the bipartisan bill, if the reconciliation bill is not completed? These are some of the key questions to watch.

September 30 – End of Fiscal Year 2021

  • If Congress does not pass regular appropriations bills, which is highly unlikely due to the lack of progress in the Senate, legislators will have to enact a Continuing Resolution (CR) to prevent a government shutdown. This would temporarily extend federal funding at current levels.
  • Any CR would have to be bipartisan.

October/November – Debt Ceiling

  • The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the United States will reach the statutory debt limit in October or November of 2021, at which point the Treasury would be unable to meet its financial obligations. The US may then delay making payments, default on its debt obligations, or both.
  • Republicans have said that they will not support raising or suspending the debt limit because, they claim, they do not want to be responsible for new deficit spending in a Democrat-only reconciliation package. Meanwhile, Democrats have pledged to address the debt limit in a bipartisan way, claiming that Republicans are responsible for debt increases cause by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
  • It is possible Democratic leaders look to pair the debt limit with other ‘must-pass’ legislation such as a CR or supplemental disaster relief responding to Hurricane Ida. They may also include the debt limit in the reconciliation package if they are unable to gain bipartisan support.
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