Congress Poised to Punt on FY2017 Appropriations, Extend CR Instead

Congress Poised to Punt on FY2017 Appropriations, Extend CR Instead

It looks like Congress will delay finalizing FY2017 appropriations until next year after Donald Trump is sworn in as President.  House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) announced today that his committee will now focus on writing a bill extending the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) until March 31, 2017.  The Senate has not officially agreed with the House plan of action, but signs are that it will.  Whether the incoming Trump Administration and 115th Congress will be ready to finalize FY2017 funding by that date, or just kick the can further down the road, remains to be seen.

Rogers has valiantly advocated for a return to “regular order” in the congressional appropriations process where all 12 regular appropriations bills are considered and approved at subcommittee level, then by the full committee, then debated and passed by the House, and conferenced with Senate counterparts to present a final bill to the President.

He successfully pushed his 12 appropriations subcommittees to finish their work in a timely manner this year, but only one bill, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA), made it through the process.  It is incorporated into the existing CR.  The CR funds all the other government departments and agencies at their FY2016 funding levels just through December 9.  Congress must pass some type of appropriations by then to keep the government operating. 

In the week since the election, congressional leaders have been weighing whether to finish the other 11 bills, packaging them into a single “omnibus” spending bill or several smaller “mini-buses,” or delay action until Trump takes office.

The latter choice was made today.

In a press release, Rogers made no secret of his disappointment, but remained philosophical.

“While I’m disappointed that the Congress is not going to be able to complete our annual funding work this year, I am extremely hopeful that the new Congress and the new Administration will finish these bills. I am also hopeful for a renewed and vigorous ‘regular order’ on future annual funding bills, so that the damaging process of Continuing Resolutions will no longer be necessary.”

House rules set 6-year term limits for committee chairs and Rogers has reached that limit, so will not chair the full Appropriations Committee in the next Congress. He is vying to become chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Speaking at a Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) luncheon this afternoon, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), a member of the Appropriations Committee and just elected to his third term, was more blunt.   Kilmer calls his Seattle-area district, which is home to Blue Origin and
Planetary Resources among others, the “Silicon Valley of space.”  He was a key figure in passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act last year, and this year in convincing the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee to
fully fund the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. 

Asked about the decision to extend the CR instead of providing full-year funding, he said he could not “explain the inexplicable” or “defend the indefensible” and Congress needs to return to regular order and pass appropriations bills.   “I don’t think that is a good way to do business. …  When I chose to run for Congress it was with the knowledge that what Congress does and doesn’t do has a big impact on industry for good and for bad. Some of that is positive investments in workforce, infrastructure, and establishing a regulatory framework that provides certainty.  Some of that is budget certainty.”   When Congress does not pass appropriations bills on time, it not only is disruptive to government agencies, “but also has a negative impact on industry.”

Outgoing Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) also expressed her dissatisfaction.   She is retiring from the Senate next month.

“This is deeply disappointing.  Once again, Republicans are stymying our ability to do our job and meet our constitutional responsibility to produce full year appropriations bills for the American people,” she said in a press release.

Mikulski chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NASA and NOAA, when Democrats were in control of the Senate.  She is the top Democrat on the committee and subcommittee now and an ardent advocate for NOAA and NASA’s space and earth science programs in particular.   “We believe we can finish the job.  We do not want a government shutdown.  Our principles remain the same: parity between defense and non-defense, no poison pill riders and compliance with the Bipartisan Budget Act. … We could do it.   Where there’s a will there’s a way.  Republicans instead have decided to procrastinate rather than legislate.”

CRs typically fund agencies at their prior year levels unless exceptions are made.  In this case, there may be more exceptions than usual.  The Obama Administration just sent a supplemental request to Congress for additional defense spending, for example, that likely will be wrapped into the CR, and there is concern that attempts will be made to include some of those “poison pill” provisions Mikulski referenced (such as ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood).  

On the other hand, some Senate Republicans reportedly are arguing to pass a CR for the rest of FY2017, not just to the end of the March, so they do not have to deal with the issue in the spring when other Trump Administration priorities are being debated.

It may take a while to develop a new CR that can get enough votes to pass Congress and win President Obama’s signature. They have until December 9 to do something.

Assuming a new CR passes — which should not be taken for granted, although a government shutdown just before Christmas would not be to either party’s advantage — how much longer the 114th Congress will remain in session thereafter is up in the air.   It would not be surprising if they adjourned as soon as the CR is passed, further limiting the amount of time to get other legislation, like the FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, finalized.

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