Negotiations for Fiscal Year 2021 Off to a Significantly Delayed Start

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

With less than 100 days until the end of the current fiscal year, the annual appropriations process has yet to begin in earnest. 

The legislative calendar is already narrowing with the upcoming August recess and full swing of the presidential campaign rapidly approaching, making the prospect of wrapping up federal spending negotiations related to the Department of Education (ED) and higher education programs by the start of the next fiscal year a herculean effort.

“What we're seeing right now is what we've seen the last six or eight years or so, which is a lot of stalemate and hesitation,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.

Due to the distractions that come along with an election year, Congress has struggled to hit its mark on wrapping up the appropriations cycle, and pressures from the last several months, including the impeachment process, have not helped.

The legislative branch was off to a promising start, having wrapped up spending for the previous fiscal year in December, as opposed to having that process bleed into the onset of current negotiations, which lawmakers have had to deal with in previous years.

“It's not likely that [impeachment] really stalled appropriations much, but it certainly took some of the political juice out of negotiations,” Huder said. “The real big kicker though was COVID, that stalled everything.”

House appropriations subcommittees are currently slated to consider all of their fiscal year 2021 spending bills during the week of July 6, with the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS-Education) subcommittee scheduled to consider its measure on July 7. Full committee markups are set to follow, beginning on July 9.

While the novel coronavirus has greatly decimated the outline of the legislative calendar, Congress still faces a number of issues typical for the annual budgeting process — only now they’re on a tighter deadline.

“Right now in the House and the Senate, you have the normal kind of policy standoff that you've seen in the last several years, where they're not even marking up bills because there are too many policy riders and poison pill amendments that are out there,” Huder said.

The Senate originally planned to hold markups during the week of June 22, but has since postponed consideration while they work out a number of issues. 

“Funding the government is a serious responsibility, and I will not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

But Senate Democrats believe that policy proposals related to police reform and the coronavirus need to be taken into consideration. 

“There is bipartisan agreement that we need to address the COVID pandemic. And if we want to truly address the issues of racial injustice that George Floyd’s tragic death has brought to the surface, we need more than symbolism, we need to appropriate money for programs that advance these issues,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said following the announced delay of the chamber’s markups. “Offering and considering amendments related to appropriations to address the most important issues of the day is not partisan, it is the job the committee is here to do.”

There are a number of politically salient amendments that could be considered nonstarters for the spending process this year, stemming from national protests, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as standard policy debates like Environmental Protection Agency regulations or the president’s use of emergency funds.

“It's a landmine, just riddled with landmines. There's no shortage of stuff that'll bottle this up in the Senate,” Huder said.

Until the Senate begins its markups, the process will largely remain stalled. 

“When you have the Senate blocked up like this there's nothing for the House to do except to send bills over to it and then wait for its response,” Huder said.

Last year the House reported it’s Labor-HHS-Education spending bill out of committee in May and sent the measure, H.R. 2740 (116), to the Senate by mid-June, relying solely on Democratic votes. The Senate didn’t release its version of the spending bill until about three months later.

Appropriators were unable to wrap up their work for fiscal year 2020 until the end of December — relying on continuing resolutions in the interim — when the White House signed a pair of spending bills, H.R. 1865 (116), and H.R. 1158 (116), into law.

On top of this tightened timeline, education and student aid programs will likely face tough odds at seeing any increase in spending allocations due to the caps placed on non-defense discretionary spending from last year’s massive budget deal.

While funding for student programs has often been flatlined, recent federal budgets have allocated additional resources to a number of programs including the Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) program and the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program.

NASFAA has more details on federal spending in its National Student Aid Profile, an annual publication designed to give a high-level overview of the federal student financial aid programs that provide funding to millions of students each year.

Meanwhile, House has roughly three more weeks of floor time, and the Senate has roughly four more weeks currently scheduled before their August recesses and the national conventions begin. 

“The odds that they pass even one of these bills before the September 30 deadline is pretty minimal,” Huder said. “It would be incredible if they were able to pull that off but I think what we're most likely going to see is just a continuing resolution past the November election.”

For more information on the federal budget process, see NASFAA’s Federal Budget and Appropriations page and NASFAA’s budget FAQs.


Publication Date: 6/30/2020

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