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FY2017 Appropriations -- It's Not Over Till It's Over

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2016
Updated: 12-Nov-2016 04:40 PM

While everyone is focusing on what a Donald Trump presidency means for the future of NASA and the rest of the space program, it is important to bear in mind that the FY2017 appropriations process is not finished yet.  He may have an early shot at those decisions if Congress pushes final action into next year.

FY2017 began on October 1.  Action on the FY2017 appropriations bills was not completed, so the House and Senate passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund agencies at their FY2016 levels through December 9.  The one exception is that the CR incorporated full-year funding for activities in the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) bill.  The other 11 "regular" appropriations bills, including Defense and Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) that fund the lion's share of national security and civil (NASA, NOAA) space programs, are in various stages in the congressional process.

To keep those and other agencies operating after December 9, Congress will have to pass and President Obama will have to sign one or more new appropriations measures. 

Before the elections, the betting was that Congress would pass one "omnibus" spending bill incorporating all 11 of the remaining appropriations bills or bundle them together into several smaller packages (mini-buses).  While differences remain between the House and Senate on their versions of these bills, for NASA, at least, the picture was looking positive for Congress to add about $1 billion in appropriated funds above what President Obama requested.  (His request included $763 million that purportedly was to come from the mandatory portion of the federal budget, which Congress ignored since NASA is funded by appropriations and the appropriations committees have no control over mandatory spending.)

Congress was able to add such a large amount in part because of a deal reached last year among the President, then-House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to relax spending caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.   Ultra conservative House Republicans objected to that budget deal and to the amounts being approved by the appropriations committee for FY2017 for non-defense discretionary agencies like NASA.

The results of last week's elections, which kept Republicans in control of the House and Senate and handed them the White House as well, could intensify efforts to rein in the deficit through budget cuts alone, not in tandem with tax increases proposed by Democrats. Republicans want more, not less, defense spending, so the non-defense agencies likely would bear the brunt of any reductions.

The path forward for FY2017 appropriations therefore has become more complicated. Congressional Republicans are debating whether to complete action on FY2017 appropriations before the end of the year or extend the CR into next spring. If they finish it now, and keep the committee-approved funding levels in place, any criticism of exceeding the budget caps could be aimed at the departing Obama Administration.  If they push it into next year, it would give the new Trump Administration an opportunity to set its own priorities and determine whether or not to exceed the caps.

Optimism that NASA would do quite well in FY2017 now must be tempered with Yogi Berra's caution that "it ain't over till it's over."

Congress returns to work this week after a multi-week recess for the elections.  The House meets for legislative business beginning on Monday.  The Senate meets in pro forma session on Monday and for legislative business beginning Tuesday.   Each chamber plans to meet only this week and then recess again until after Thanksgiving.


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