Congress will have just 10 legislative days to avert a government shutdown when members return from their annual five-week summer break Sept. 8—and that could once again put some education and child-related programs, including Head Start and Impact Aid, on the hot seat.
Collectively, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate this year are further along in the appropriations process for the bills that fund 12 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education, than they have been in more than a decade. But they’re still slated to fall short of completing the fiscal 2016 spending bills in regular order, and the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
That means lawmakers will have to broker a deal to either continue current spending levels for a certain period of time—something known as a continuing resolution, or CR—or hash out a broader, all-inclusive spending plan called an omnibus. They could also settle on a combination of the two, in which they agree on an all-inclusive spending plan for a limited period of time, a hybrid fiscal fix known inside the Beltway as a “cromnibus.”
“Obviously, by midnight September 30, Congress has to do something, or we have a government shutdown,” said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a coalition of groups that advocates for increased education funding. “I think it will be bumpy and chaotic, but I still think there is a good chance of some deal, and we end up with hopefully few, if any, cuts for education.”
To be sure, this last-minute jostling comes as no surprise. The last time Congress actually funded all agencies through the regular appropriations process was in 1997. This year, both chambers’ appropriations committees passed all 12 spending bills, but none have been brought to the floor for a vote.
One of the biggest obstacles this year is the looming expiration of the budget deal negotiated back in 2013 by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which set funding levels above what was outlined in the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
With the Murray-Paul deal expiring at the end of September, Republicans took advantage of their control of both houses to craft appropriations bills that adhere to those sequester spending caps.
In the House, for example, the appropriations committee passed a fiscal 2016 spending bill that would slash funding for the Education Department and its programs by $2.8 billion compared to its current level, $67.2 billion. The Senate appropriations committee approved a bill that would cut funding by $1.7 billion.
Both bills would eliminate dozens of programs, including high-profile Obama administration priorities like the School Improvement Grants, Preschool Development Grants, Investing in Innovation, and the Teacher Incentive Fund.
Notably, President Barack Obama has promised to veto any spending bill that locks in sequester-level funding, so each chamber’s fiscal plans are more for show than anything, though they can certainly be used as a road map to highlight Republican education priorities.
Before members of Congress left town for their summer breaks, they began acknowledging that they’ll need to work quickly to find a way to continue funding the federal government. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the chambers would sign off on a continuing resolution, though he didn’t say how long the potential stop-gap funding measure would run.
Bearing the Brunt
Since most federally funded education programs are forward-funded, meaning their annual appropriations are typically used the following year, whatever deal members of Congress strike to keep the government afloat will have little or no impact.
Two major exceptions include the $8.5 billion Head Start program, administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which provides preschool services for low-income families, and the Education Department’s $1.3 billion Impact Aid program. Impact Aid funds go to schools located on federal land, such as military bases and Native American reservations, which are not bolstered by local taxes because of their location.
A short-term continuing resolution could put Impact Aid schools in a bind. When the government operates on a stop-gap funding measure, the department can only fund Impact Aid schools for part of the school year, and it often forces districts to borrow money in the interim. More than 1,250 districts receive Impact Aid.
A new budget deal, however, could spell trouble for education programs on the whole, especially some of the Obama administration grants that Republicans rejected in their fiscal 2016 spending proposals.
“I think it will be complicated and I don’t think anyone can predict what’s going to happen,” Packer said. “But the president has been pretty clear that he’s not going to sign a bill that locks in sequester funding.”