Washington Watch: President’s budget kicks appropriations process up a notch

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With the release of most of its fiscal year 2020 budget, the Trump administration has put forth its spending and policy priorities, which Congress will now consider as it deliberates federal spending for the coming year.

Like last year, the Trump budget would increase spending on the military and make substantial cuts to domestic programs. The Republican-controlled Congress rejected most of those proposed cuts in FY 2019, and with Democrats now controlling the House, the president’s budget is even less likely to be accepted. However, it is still an important step in a process that will almost certainly extend well beyond the start of FY 2020 on October 1.

Monday’s budget release is over a month late. Normally, the administration’s budget is released on the first Monday in February, but the government shutdown earlier this year delayed it until now. Monday’s release wasn’t even the entire budget – more details will be provided over the next couple of weeks. Congressional hearings on the administration’s budget – a perennial and key part of the process, both for political and policy reasons – obviously can’t begin until it is released.

Broader budget constraints

While the administration’s budget is important procedurally, even if Congress may ignore many of its proposals, the most pressing overarching funding issue is how much money appropriators will have to spend in FY 2020. The Budget Control Act of 2011 set spending levels for defense and non-defense discretionary programs through FY 2021. These so-called “sequester level” spending caps are extremely constraining and, through a series of subsequent budget deals, Congress has managed to increase them for the last six years.

However, no such agreement is in place for FY 2020, and many observers think that Congress may not reach such a deal until this summer or later. The same political dynamics that led to past agreements – Republicans primarily wanting increases for defense spending, Democrats for domestic programs – are still in play. But a substantially higher federal deficit, presidential politics and budget rules that increase the long-term cost of a cap increase this time around all feed into the uncertainty about when, or maybe even if, Congress will achieve a new budget deal that President Trump will sign.

The stakes for this debate are high. Without a new budget deal, domestic discretionary programs would be slashed by $55 billion, or 9 percent. Defense programs would take an even bigger hit. All of this points to the eventuality that Congress will resolve the issue, but community college leaders should not take anything for granted. That means that we must urge our congressional representatives to hatch a budget deal that allows for needed investments in the programs on which our students and colleges depend so greatly.

About the Author

Jim Hermes
is associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.