August 7, 2014

Dysfunction Junction (Part 2)

Posted by Fushcia Hoover

By Nick Saab

Several weeks ago I wrote a piece on the background of the U.S. congressional appropriations process, outlining the procedure through which the Federal government is funded.

Progress to Date

The Senate has begun work on several appropriations bills, but as of today none have been passed by the full Senate. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill which funds NASA, NIST, NOAA, NSF, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology was passed by the full Appropriations committee in June with broad bipartisan support, and appeared destined for the president’s desk. To speed up the process, it was bundled with the Agriculture and Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) spending bills – thus turning three separate bills into one. Likewise, the Energy and Water appropriations bill, which funds the Department of Energy among other programs, was scheduled for debate in the Energy and Water appropriations subcommittee. That was where the drama unfolded.

Sinking the (Bipartisan) Ship

Senate Republicans offered an amendment to the Energy and Water appropriations bill that would have blocked funding for EPA regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Because these regulations are one of the President’s primary ways to reduce the emissions associated with climate change, the president has said he would veto any bill with such an amendment. However, for some Democratic Senators up for election in November, the EPA rules are highly unpopular with some of their constituents. Voting on an amendment to block the rules would thus put these Senators in a difficult spot – if they vote for it, they would be opposing one of the President’s top priorities, but if they vote against it, they might not be reelected. In response, Democratic Senate leaders decided not to have any votes on the Energy and Water appropriations bill, and not to allow any amendments to be added to the other appropriations bills. Republican Senate leaders now say that as long as they cannot add amendments to appropriations bills, they will block passage of all of these bills. As such, the entire appropriations process has ground to a halt with little time left to work out a deal.


Current standings for Senate and House 2015 appropriations bills. Credit: The National Journal

Current standings for Senate and House 2015 appropriations bills.
Credit: The National Journal

The Fun House

The House of Representatives meanwhile has plowed ahead with its appropriations bills, passing a handful (see chart above). These spending bills are not without their own areas of controversy, as they contain amendments, among others, that would block use of any appropriated funds to implement the National Ocean Policy or conduct a National Climate Assessment.

Coming Together

When the House and Senate pass different versions of the same legislation, the differences are resolved in a “conference committee,” where an equal number of Senators and Representatives get together and hash out a final bill. In this case, with so many spending bills being lumped together, this could be one doozy of a conference committee. The legislation that emerges from the negotiations, must go back to each chamber for a vote – with no amendments, and with a lot left on the cutting room floor from each chambers’ original bill. The upside of this process is that the most egregious amendments could well be removed. However, it’s a significant possibility that harmful amendments could remain in a final version of all these spending bills, particularly if removing them isn’t as important to legislators as their other priorities.

Where We Are Headed
Congress will need time to work out their differences. At this time Congress is planning to pass a short-term appropriations bill to keep the government funded through at least November, and potentially into the new year, mostly likely at funding levels nearly identical to those currently in place. This short-term funding makes it difficult for federally-funded entities to plan long-term projects when they don’t know if they’ll have adequate funding in a few months.

Where You Fit In

Your voice is important – you can tell Congress about the need to get these funding bills moving. You can also make it clear that strong funding for Earth and space science is a priority, as well as weigh in on any amendments you like or dislike. Get involved using AGU’s Action Center.

Nick Saab is staff in AGU’s Public Affairs Department