The president’s “America First” budget blueprint, a.k.a. the “skinny budget,” made a lot of noise when it was introduced two months ago and brought focus to the administration’s upcoming FY2018 budget priorities. The administration followed up shortly after by requesting reductions in the 2017 budget for the remaining five months of this fiscal year.
But then it came time for Congress to act, and they said, “Thank you for the very amusing budget Mr. President, but we are going to do our own thing …and incidentally, thank you for uniting Republicans and Democrats in opposition to your draconian cuts.”
After all, it’s members of Congress that have to figure out how to keep the federal government operating. So with a government shutdown looming, Congress effectively ignored the administration’s requests, and on May 4 passed a bill to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year through September 30, 2017. The bill was a repudiation of the president’s budget priorities, as it increased funding to many agencies, offices, and programs that the administration specifically targeted for cuts or elimination.
The president is expected to release his full fiscal year 2018 budget this week (fleshing out the details of his “skinny budget”), and there aren’t expected to be any surprises. It will likely track the skinny budget pretty closely, which means it’s going nowhere in Congress.
To get a clearer sense of the prospects for the president’s FY2018 budget, let’s look at some of the budget choices Congress made for the FY2017 Omnibus Spending Bill that are at odds with what President Trump proposed for 2018:
Department of Energy (DOE)
President Trump’s FY18 budget request proposes to eliminate ARPA-E, DOE’s innovative clean energy technology R&D program; and the Loan Programs Office, which provides credit support to help deploy innovative clean energy technologies. Additionally, it targeted critical programs in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), like the Weatherization Assistance Program (which funds energy efficiency improvements for low-income households) and the State Energy Program (which provides funding and technical assistance to states for increasing energy efficiency or renewable energy). The president’s FY17 request specifically targeted EERE for a 25% cut ($516 million).
Instead of eliminating ARPA-E, congress gave it a 5% increase in funding in FY17 (from $291 million to $306 million) and also provided an extension of current funding for the Loan Programs Office. The Weatherization Assistance Program was given a 6% increase while the State Energy Program received sustained funding at the 2016 level. EERE ultimately received a very slight increase instead of a devastating cut.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
The president’s FY18 budget request proposed to cut over $250 million “in grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education,” which essentially constituted 23% of the combined budget for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) and the National Ocean Service (NOS).
The administration was more specific in their FY17 budget request, calling for cuts to coastal zone management grants, regional coastal resilience grants, and climate research grants. The administration also proposed reducing satellite capacity at the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), which provides the data needed to produce National Weather Service forecasts.
Instead of cuts, in the FY17 Omnibus bill that Congress provided a slight increase in funding for Coastal Science and Assessment, as well as for Ocean and Coastal Management Services, at NOS. OAR received a 6.6% increase in funding (from $482 million to $514.1 million), with the climate research budget untouched. And Congress increased funding for Environmental Satellite Observing Systems at NESDIS by 25% (from $130.1 million to $163.4 million).
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The president’s FY18 budget request proposed cutting the EPA’s budget by 31% and eliminating 3,200 staff and over 50 programs, including those supporting international and domestic climate change research and partnership programs. His budget also reduces funds allocated to Superfund, Brownfields, compliance monitoring, and enforcement, which further endangers economically vulnerable communities and communities of color. While the administration would have the states take on more of the EPA’s responsibility, the president’s budget eliminates geographic programs and reduces funding for state categorical grants by a whopping 45 percent.
The EPA was spared any drastic cuts and staff layoffs in FY17. Its clean air and climate programs were funded at the previous year’s levels, as was the Compliance Monitoring Program (which helps ensure our environmental laws are followed), enforcement, and Superfund. State and Tribal Assistance Grants and Geographic Programs, which support Brownfields Projects, local air management, water protection, and lead and hazardous waste programs, actually received a slight increase in funding.
FEMA, NASA and more…
Congress rebuffed the president’s request to eliminate FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which helps bring down the cost of disasters and protects communities by supporting preparedness efforts. Also escaping cuts was NASA’s Earth Science Program, which develops, launches, and maintains a network of satellites that collect data on Earth’s surface and atmosphere—a critical tool for improving predictive capacity for everything from agricultural commodities and water management to infrastructure.
There are examples like these all throughout the FY17 Omnibus spending bill that Congress passed two weeks ago. Some say the president was rebuffed because congress was in no mood to shut down the government over spending, but it’s also true that there were many congressional Republicans who opposed large parts of the president’s budget.
Appropriators are not interested in gutting the institutions they fund, and House Speaker Ryan is not interested in shutting down the government, which would call into question his party’s ability to govern. You can bet many Republicans breathed a private sigh of relief when leadership reached a deal on what effectively was another “continuing resolution” (CR).
It wasn’t all good
One significant flaw in the budget deal is the insertion of an anti-science policy rider that instructs the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to work with the EPA to establish policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy.”
Unfortunately, burning forest biomass to make electricity is not inherently carbon-neutral because “removing the carbon dioxide released from burning wood through new tree growth requires many decades to a century. All the while the added carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere trapping heat.“
Congress should not be legislating science, and this is a cautionary tale for the FY18 budget fight. Special interest amendments, or “riders,”,have the ability to make a reasonable budget an unsavory bill. The biomass rider got in because it had bipartisan support, but going forward, both parties will need to reach a clear understanding on what constitutes a “clean budget” if they want to eventually reach an agreement. Constituents will also need to hold their members of congress accountable if they don’t want government funding bills to become delivery devices for bad, long-lived policy.
The 2018 budget fight: government shutdown, continuing resolution, or “the nuclear option”?
So what does this mean for the 2018 budget? Where are we headed?
If Congress can’t pass another bill to fund the government for the 2018 fiscal year before October 1, the government will effectively shut down (and we all know what that looks like).
While the president has said “our country needs a good shutdown,” most Americans would strongly disagree …as would most members of Congress. But the president is angling to give himself some breathing room because he knows it is impossible for his budget priorities to pass the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for a filibuster.
A bill that continues funding the government at last year’s spending levels is a loss for the president, and there aren’t enough Democrats that would support a budget deal with the kinds of cuts to discretionary spending that he is proposing.
But the president is negotiating, and this tactic is straight out of “The Art of the Deal.” He’s betting that if he proposes extremely deep cuts, Congress will move slightly more in his direction on spending levels …and that government shutdowns don’t last forever.
The most likely outcome is a continuing resolution or “CR,” which would keep the federal government functioning at current spending levels for a limited period of time. Some Republican appropriators have already given up on the prospect of moving their subcommittee’s spending bills through the chambers and are instructing their staff to start developing a list of add-ons to the current spending package.
It takes Democratic votes to pass a spending bill out of the Senate and they will not support budget cuts. Shutting down the government is bad for both the president and the majority party in congress so most Republicans don’t want to go in that direction. Continuing funding at existing spending levels would prevent the president from advancing his domestic agenda and would be a big loss, but it’s also the most likely outcome …that is, unless the Senate changes the rules.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) could potentially employ “the nuclear option” and get rid of the 60-vote requirement (the Senate filibuster), taking away the need for Democratic votes to pass a budget. McConnell has already done this once this year to get the Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination through the Senate. It’s possible that when faced with a choice between a CR the president won’t sign, a bill the Democrats won’t pass, and a government shutdown, McConnell could set aside his institutionalist tendencies and do away with the filibuster on federal spending.
Going nuclear is an unlikely outcome, but it’s definitely a possibility. Do most Americans see the Senate as the greatest deliberative body in the world? Do they even know what the filibuster is? I suspect not, and that means that the only political downside to changing the rules for the budget would be reciprocity by the Democrats at a future time when they have control of Congress. Is that enough to keep Senator McConnell from doing it?
What you can do to protect critical programs and spending
Watchdog the appropriations process this year and weigh in throughout the summer with your members of Congress on the spending priorities you care about. Tell them not to vote for a budget that cuts those priorities, and if there are no appropriators in your congressional delegation, tell them to weigh in with the appropriations subcommittees and advocate for your priorities.
If we get a CR, that’s a good thing because federal spending would be set at current levels; no cuts. But CR’s don’t last forever; eventually Congress will pass another budget. Advocating with appropriators increases the likelihood of higher funding levels in those subcommittee appropriations bills for the things you care about. If you don’t work the appropriations process, if you don’t engage with your members of Congress, you get what you get (it may be cuts), and all you can do is pray for a never-ending CR.
We may be looking at a scenario where a federal budget is voted on by a simple majority, in which case the funding levels coming out of the appropriations subcommittees really matter. If you care about federal spending priorities, depending on the Senate filibuster as protection may not turn out to be a prudent strategy. Consider that there are also Republicans that care about some of these spending priorities, like research and innovation.
If constituents are actively engaged in communicating spending priorities with their members of Congress, even without the 60-vote hurdle, meaningful cuts to programs and agencies that support things like scientific research, clean energy innovation, public health, and community preparedness for climate change, won’t come to fruition.
So call your members of congress! Show up to those town halls! And drop by your local congressional office!