Washington Watch: Progress on the budget

Congressional leaders and the Trump administration this week struck a deal to raise federal spending caps and suspend the debt ceiling for the next two years.

Congress will likely pass legislation embodying this deal before it adjourns for its August recess. President Trump has indicated (via Twitter) that he supports the deal.

Assuming all goes according to plan, the budget deal answers some key questions about the fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations process, though we don’t yet have all the details. We do know that the deal increases the spending cap for non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs to $622 million in FY 20 and $627 million in FY 21. In FY 20, the new cap is roughly $79 billion higher for non-defense programs than it would have been without a deal — thereby averting deep cuts — and about $24 billion more than was spent on these programs in FY 19.

A new House cap

While the spending cap for all NDD programs is now set, we don’t yet know how much of these additional resources will go to the all-important Labor, HHS and Education (LHHS) appropriations bill. The LHHS bill funds most community college priorities, such as Pell grants, Perkins career and technical education grants, and U.S. Labor Department (DOL) workforce training funds. The appropriations ceiling set for this bill will determine how much is available for individual programs.

By way of context, earlier this year the House “deemed” their own budget caps and moved funding legislation forward on that basis. The House’s spending caps raised FY 20 NDD spending by $34 billion over FY 19, with nearly $12 billion of that going to the LHHS bill. This allowed for a $150 increase to the Pell Grant maximum award, substantial boosts for the Higher Education Act Title III-A Strengthening Institutions and Child Care Access Means Parents in School programs, and many other important community college programs. And, notably, the bill contained a new $150 million Strengthening Community College Training grants program, which would sit at DOL.

At the time, most assumed that the House caps would be a high-water mark and that the final budget caps agreed to by Republicans would eventually be lower. This has in fact materialized, as the agreed-upon NDD cap is $10 billion lower than the House number.

Focus on the Senate side

Senate appropriators, who unlike their House counterparts waited for a final deal before writing their bills, will work over the upcoming August recess with the goal of writing their legislation shortly after they return in September. Final legislation will be a compromise between the House and Senate versions, but given that the Senate bill will be written according to the agreed-upon caps, its provisions will probably more closely resemble the final bill.

The challenge for community college advocates at this time is to achieve positive funding levels in the Senate bill. Community college leaders should take advantage of the August congressional recess to meet with their senators and representatives and make the case for our funding priorities. This will be especially important if we hope to retain the new community college training program in the House bill.

About the Author

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