A proud native of Chicago, I know a thing or two about wind. I’m aware, for example, that the essential elements needed to make it blow are pressure and ​hot air

I’m also a long-time resident of Capital City, who has come to know a thing or two about political winds and what’s required for them to blow. Unsurprisingly, it is the same two elements.

Both have been in abundance in D.C. for quite some time. A most notable wind passed through Congress just the other day and in the nick of time to avoid shutting down the federal government.

The 1,665 page Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 (Act) gained bi-partisan and bicameral support much more rapidly than many had predicted. Republicans and Democrats, in sufficient numbers, agreed there would be no winners should the government be forced to hang a “Gone Fishing” sign on the door.

One of the most surprising outcomes of the Act was how well federal clean energy and environmental programs fared by comparison to the proposed slash and burn preferences of the Trump administration and many Republican members of Congress.

Congressional brinksmanship has become quite commonplace over the last forty or so years. I seriously doubt the framers of the Constitution had ever imagined an annual appropriations process of last minute continuing resolutions.

This and floriferous cherry trees have become rites of Spring here in D.C. Although I doubt whether continuing resolutions will ever make it on to the postcards tourists seem to love.

How the Process Is Supposed to Work—more or less

Signatories of the Constitution had envisioned spending bills wending their way through Congress much like any other piece of legislation, with one notable exception.

​Article 1, Section 7, clause 1 states:

All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.

Known as the Origination Clause, the framers had in mind the practice of their former British masters.  Money bills in parliament must originate in the House of Commons. Like Commons, the U.S. House of Representatives is the legislative chamber closest to we the people.

It is a nice, if now somewhat quaint, practice that was never really specified in Article 1 language. Revenue and money are not synonymous terms; revenue is most closely associated with such taxing words as levying and collecting. Money, on the other hand, is more encompassing; as applied in the British system, it is intended to incorporate the act of spending.

Without going into the long and somewhat arcane arguments made over the years, it is sufficient to repeat what the Congressional Research Service has to say:

Although the constitutional question has never been definitively resolved, in practice the Senate has generally deferred to the House’s insistence on originating appropriations.

The smooth passage of money bills–from the House to the Senate and on to the President–envisioned some 230 years ago– has not been the norm since Jimmy Carter took office.

In theory, the appropriations process begins with the president sending his recommendations for the year to Congress. (see illustration below) These are simply his thoughts; they have no legal or legislative standing. What is contained in the president’s budget has generally been first introduced in the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

FY 2017 was the last budget of the Obama administration. Trump’s recently submitted skinny budget is for FY 2018 and is his first.

The next stage of the spending process is passage of a concurrent budget resolution of the House and Senate. Budget resolutions do not require presidential approval.

The purpose of the resolution is simply to determine how much total cash will be in the till for a given fiscal year. The federal budget is made up of three basic spending categories: mandatory; discretionary; and debt service.

  • Mandatory spending includes things like Medicare, Medicaid and social security.
  • Debt service is what the government pays for borrowed funds.
  • Discretionary is everything from pre-school programs to defense spending and includes energy and the environment.

Where and how discretionary funds are spent are determined by the appropriating committees and sub-committees. The budget resolution establishes spending amounts across 20 functional categories, e.g. national defense or transportation.

These numbers are referred to on the Hill as 302(a) allocations. After receipt of the 302(a) allocations, the House and Senate appropriations committees further divide these funds into spending limits for each of the 12 appropriations bills that are to eventually be acted upon separately by both the House and Senate and sent to the president for his signature. These subdivisions are known as 302(b) allocations.

The bills signed by the president then become law. Those vetoed are sent back to the Congress for further action—either to be amended and re-sent to the president or overridden. It is possible that vetoed legislation results in  a stalemate, i.e. the president continues to object and the Congress is unable to muster the needed votes to override. This, however, is a discussion for  another day.

Should the suspense threaten to kill you, however, there are a number of sites you can access. I highly recommend clicking into the Congressional Research Service for a somewhat detailed but excellent telling of the tale. Generally, if you click on the homepage of your Representative or Senator they also will have a section on how various bills become law.

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​ Now Fuhgeddaboudit!

Now that you understand something of how it is supposed be, let me tell you how it has come to be. The last time Congress allocated funds in the manner intended, i.e. with the passage of the 12 appropriations bills, was for the 2002 fiscal year. Even that year Congress needed to pass 8 continuing resolutions before landing on a budget all considered about the right size.

According to Kathryn Pearson, from the University of Minnesota, Congress has completed the full set of appropriations bills–without recourse to the use of continuing resolutions–only four times since 1977.

FOUR TIMES–in 40 years! Talk about The Curse of the Billy Goat; something else we Chicagoans know a thing or two about.

Saved Before the Bell: Clean Energy and the Environment Fared Well in the   2017 ½  Omnibus Legislation

It’s no exaggeration to say that on an ascending fear scale of 1 to 10 the clean energy and environmental communities were close to topping out prior to the recent accord.

​The fear level was only matched by an equal or greater intention to oppose the promised cuts of programs and dollars. There were reasons to worry.

Trump’s attack dog in the budget fight—OMB Director Mick Mulvaney—released a 2018 proposed presidential budget asking to cut EPA’s budget by 31 percent, reduce categorical grants to localities by 45 percent, eliminate funding for restoration of the Great Lakes and pretty much gut all climate research. Energy fared little better.

The skinny budget, as the document came to be known, proposed the elimination of the Department of Energy’s Advance Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), whose goal is to take the promising ideas from basic research and quickly develop them into fledgling technologies.

Trump was proposing to make America great again by cutting in half the Energy Department’s renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, including the elimination of state grants and weatherization. Mulvaney claimed an unwed welfare mother in Detroit was insisting Trump cut these and other programs, e.g. flipping Big Bird off–the dole.

Consistent with its 2018 requests the White House was asking Congress to get a head start in the 5 months remaining in the 2017 spending cycle.

The extant omnibus bill rebuffs that request. Thanks to the last-minute agreement several Energy Department research efforts would see modest funding increases for this fiscal year.

Despite calls by the White House for its eventual elimination, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) would get a $15 million boost to $306 million. The Office of Science, the main source of funds for the national laboratories, would get a small increase to $5.4 billion. And energy efficiency programs would get a $40 million boost to $761 million.

The 2017 ½ budget bill dashed Administrator Pruitt’s hoped for revenge on the EPA. According to Bloomberg:

 The Environmental Protection Agency, targeted for $247 million in cuts for this year’s funding, instead escaped with a budget trimmed by $81 million —  or 1 percent — and no staff reductions. Research divisions within the Department of Energy received increases despite calls by Trump to slash or eliminate them.

Not everything was put back where it was found, however. Monies for the UN’s Green Climate Fund were not restored. A last-ditch effort by the Democrats to include orphaned renewable energy tax credits proved futile.

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Beware the Omnibus Appropriations Bill!

The collective sigh of relief uttered by the clean energy and environmental communities  is premature. On its face the budget accord appears to have denied Trump’s request to seriously slash federal climate change programs. It may yet prove an illusion.

Appropriations from the perspective of the agencies is a three-step process once the legislation is passed it then becomes a matter of: getting; spending; and, keeping. There are less than five months left in FY 2017. Five months in government time is the proverbial New York second.

Even assuming federal programs have immediate access to the appropriated sums, it takes time to do all that is necessary to obligate them. A lot, but not all, discretionary funds can be fed into existing pipelines.

Some monies, e.g. new project and research, can only be obligated after an open competitive solicitation. From start to finish, e.g. drafting the solicitation, publication and final decision, the process can easily take more than five months.

All funding actions from solicitation to obligation must be signed-off on by various agency executives—many of whom are or will be Trump appointees.

Add to this situations in which agency staff are insufficient to the task, becaus of the sheer volume of paperwork involved and/or because the White House has   been slow to fill vacancies.

Funds not legally obligated by midnight September 30, 2017 will likely be  scooped up by OMB and used as off sets in 2018 or returned to the treasury to be redirected to more favored agencies and programs. Getting and keeping federal program funds are two very different things.

Will this happen? I don’t know. Has it happened before in other administrations?

Indeed, it has!

Pressure + Heat= Wind

The relative ease of the 2017 ½ compromise is unlikely to be repeated in the FY 2018 cycle. Both parties were under intense pressure these past weeks to keep the government open.

Having failed to secure the votes needed to repeal and replace Obamacare, Republicans in Congress and The Donald were facing tough scrutiny from the right and the middle. Questions concerning the ability of the party and its president to govern were openly being asked.

Democrats were feeling a different set of pressures. Could the Party come together after the contentious primary battles between Clinton’s liberals and Sanders progressives? Would Congressional Democrats be forever steam-rolled by Republicans on environmental protections, defense, immigration and a host  of other matters, as they were on the Gorsuch confirmation?

The budget battle was a second chance for both parties to make a good first impression. At the least, it was a fight to be avoided.

The budget for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year was not Trump’s first; it was Obama’s last. As such, Republican lawmakers sought to avail themselves of  two rationales that would not be available to them in the future:

  1. blame the previous administration for funding programs the new administration opposed, e.g. environmental protection and abortion counselling; and
  2. claim it was simply too late to start over.

Moreover, there is always the fail-safe of grid-locking the use of the monies as mentioned above.

A heated war of words began almost immediately after the budget bargain was struck. Democrats gave the impression that Trump had been vanquished–not just for the next five months–but for the duration of his term.

Democrats think they have set the stage to block President Trump’s legislative priorities for years to come by winning major concessions in a spending bill to keep the government open.

The White House and Congressional Republicans directed supporters’ attention  to FY 2018 appropriations cycle and promised things would be different. Remarks tweeted by Trump and reiterated by Mulvaney suggest what is yet come:

What we just did this week was fine and passable, but not ideal … I think a good shutdown would be one that could help fix that…

I don’t know exactly what Trump and his Budget Master mean by the term fix. I suspect their using it as I would to explain young Bigley’s recent absence from home: he’s at the vet’s being fixed.

Extreme partisanship is neutering the federal government to the point where next year’s budget will be the continuation of this year’s, which was a continuation of the year before, and the year before that and the….

Continuing resolutions are a lousy way to conduct the people’s business. I presented the basics of the appropriations process so readers would have some understanding of how the process was designed to work.

The process is arduous, and certainly changes are in order, e.g. the passage of biennial rather than annual spending plans. It is, however, a way for new concepts to be introduced and deliberated on through committee hearings.

Given the threat of a good shut down just months from now and the counter claim of having blocked Trump’s priorities for the foreseeable future, brinksman-ship will continue to define the federal appropriations process. Like Haboob, Mistral, Chinook and Sirocco the headwinds off Capitol Hill can be counted on to blow regularly across the city and the nation.

Bar Graph: Graph: David Malakoff/Science/ Data: U.S. Congress

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Unsplash: 
https://unsplash.com/