Almost six months shy of the start of the new fiscal year, lawmakers are already quietly planning to skip passing a budget—at least for the first few months, until after the contentious November elections—in favor of a temporary continuing resolution. But short of an electoral victory that leads to single-party control in both chambers of Congress, members can expect to go to battle yet again after the elections. In that way, lawmakers are upholding the legacy of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA).
The fiscal year 2015 battlefield will look different from last year’s. For fiscal year 2014, the House and Senate disagreed first and foremost on the top-level numbers: the total discretionary spending available to appropriators. A deal made the year before to kick the can down the road on sequestration meant that spending was supposed to drop yet again in 2014. But Senate Democrats didn’t have the stomach for more cuts to the programs they value, so instead they voted to increase spending. The Senate passed a budget resolution setting the overall spending limit $91 billion higher than was allowed by the deal in place at the time. (The House mirrored the lower amount set under the previous year’s compromise.)
That established huge differences between the House and Senate starting points for the budget – hence the government shutdown. For 16 days, federal offices remained largely shuttered, until Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) reached agreement on their negotiations for the Bipartisan Budget Act. That deal split the difference in spending limits for 2014 and set a new limit for 2015. And that’s where this year’s problems come into play.
Even though the House and Senate have already agreed on a top-level spending limit, and have both agreed to follow through on it, there’s another obstacle in their way. While spending on appropriations-funded programs totaled $1.012 trillion in 2014, it’s scheduled to increase to only $1.014 trillion for fiscal year 2015. That’s a less than one percent increase in year-over-year spending. Yet most federal programs are used to at least an inflationary increase in appropriations (the last several years excepted, given the unusual circumstances of sequestration).
So without much room for federal growth in the coming months, policymakers are short on options. Instead, they will probably have to make cuts to some programs to afford the basic increases for others. And that’s where the fiscal year 2015 budget will get tricky, especially for education spending: at the program level, rather than with the overall limit. Over the last few years, a handful of education programs have been slowly squeezed or even cut entirely from the budget, largely to make room for spending on the Pell Grant program, whose costs have cannibalized much of the Department of Education’s funding thanks to growing award sizes and skyrocketing enrollment during the recession. So some education efforts could face even deeper fiscal challenges if the agency’s budget is held effectively constant next year, either from budget cuts or from continued flatlined funding amounts.
And if fiscal year 2015 proves to be a problem, the following year surely will, too. Heading towards the 2016 presidential elections, lawmakers will face the same marginal increase in overall spending, this time up from $1.014 trillion to $1.016 trillion, while Congress gets back on track with the Budget Control Act discretionary spending limits.
All those challenges—and especially the reports that Congress is already planning to pass nothing more than a temporary spending bill before the midterm elections—force eye rolls at the House’s possible planned consideration this week of two of the dozen fiscal year 2015 appropriations bills. It’s just another case of pageantry winning out on Capitol Hill, while lawmakers’ actual responsibilities to fund the government languish in political turmoil.