The next fiscal crisis: the federal budget ?>

The next fiscal crisis: the federal budget

As agencies begin to implement the cuts warranted by sequestration, Congress’ focus has turned to the continuing resolution that expires on March 27. You might be wondering what a continuing resolution is and why you should even care. Well, as with most things in Washington these days, the debate surrounding the expiring continuing resolution could significantly affect funding for scientific research.

By law, federal departments require yearly Congressional authorization to spend money on discretionary programs such as scientific research, defense, education, etc. When functioning normally, Congress passes a series of appropriations bills before Sep. 30 that authorize discretionary spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. When Congress is unable to pass appropriations bills before the start of the fiscal year, they often pass a continuing resolution. A CR funds the government at the previous fiscal year’s level, and failure to pass appropriations bills or a CR results in a government shutdown. Typically Congress sets CRs to expire rather quickly—one or two weeks—to use the pressure of a government shutdown as motivation to hammer out a deal.

Last September, the beginning of fiscal 2013 was fast approaching, but lawmakers were not close to an agreement on FY13 appropriations. Compounding this problem, the presidential election was only six weeks away and would set the tone for the looming fiscal cliff and federal budget debates. So Congress decided to wait until long after the election to decide on FY13 appropriations and passed a six-month CR—the longest CR ever passed.

If Congress fails to pass appropriations bills or a new CR by March 27, the government will shut down and federal research funding agencies will not be able to issue payments on grants. Already, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to fund the government for the rest of the year. This bill is essentially a CR. It would fund the government at FY12 levels and maintain the cuts made by sequestration with one clear exception. The Department of Defense would be given an extra $7 billion to soften the blow of sequestration. Since overall federal spending will not rise, this extra $7 billion will come out of nondefense discretionary programs such as scientific research, education, and road construction. The Senate has not released their plan to fund the government after March 27. However, the Senate’s bill is expected to be similar to the House version but possibly with some nondefense discretionary programs also getting some relief from the devastating cuts of the sequester.

Stay tuned to the Policy Blotter for updates on the next round of Washington budget battles.

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