All eyes have been on the U.S. Senate in the past few weeks for clues about what might become of the fiscal year 2012 appropriations process. Nearly all federal education programs are funded through the annual appropriations process, and a new fiscal year starts each October 1st.
As we wrote a few weeks back, the appropriations process for fiscal year 2012 has been well underway in the House of Representatives, but no action has been taken in the Senate. That changed yesterday. The Senate voted on several different proposals for a fiscal year 2012 budget resolution, which would establish an overall limit for fiscal year 2012 appropriations—effectively the first step in the annual appropriations process.
Yet the Senate still hasn’t gotten any further along in the process. None of the budget proposals garnered sufficient votes to pass. In fact, the four proposals that Senators defeated yesterday suggest that no budget resolution could win a simple majority of votes in the Senate. (A budget resolution cannot be filibustered; it needs only a simply majority vote to pass).
While a congressional budget resolution does not specify funding levels for individual programs and does not provide a funding level for the U.S. Department of Education, the limit on appropriations spending it imposes on fiscal year 2012 will affect spending decisions on education programs made later in the year. For example, if Congress ultimately adopts a budget resolution that reduces overall appropriations funding compared to fiscal year 2011, the House and Senate appropriations committees will find it difficult to maintain current-year funding for education programs—especially the Pell Grant program for low-income undergraduate students.
The table below shows how the appropriations spending limits in the four budget resolutions defeated in the Senate yesterday compare to one another and to the House-passed version, as well as President Obama’s February 2011 proposal. Note that Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) offered the same budget resolution that House Republicans adopted last month, and Senator Sessions (R-AL), the lead Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, offered a budget resolution mirroring President Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget request. This was not, however, a rare moment of generous bipartisanship. It was pure partisan politics. The senators wanted to demonstrate that the respective proposals do not have majority support in the Senate. They also wanted to get lawmakers on the record opposing their own political parties’ proposals (or in Senator Reid’s case, wanted to get Republican Senators on the record in support of the House-passed budget.)
Given yesterday’s events in the Senate, the fiscal year 2012 appropriations process looks like it will be anything but normal. Just like fiscal year 2011, Congress will likely bypass the normal appropriations process where each Chamber passes appropriations bills, reconciles differences, and the president signs them by October 1st. Lawmakers instead are likely to negotiate one omnibus spending bill late this year, or pass a series of stop-gap funding bills for fiscal year 2012. We will continue to follow this process in the coming weeks and months.