Congress passes two-year budget, raises debt ceiling

Congress just voted on a two-year budget that must now go to the President for his signature.

Congress has approved a two-year budget that now goes to the President for his signature.

Early this morning, the U.S. Senate gave final approval to a two-year budget agreement that raises nondefense discretionary caps and defense programs caps by $80 billion over two years. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 also “suspends” the debt limit until March 15, 2017, provides additional funding through the Overseas Contingency Operations war-funding account, and outlines a series of financial offsets and other changes.

Passage of a two-year budget, and two-year “suspension” of the debt ceiling ensures Congress will not be funding the government on a crisis-by-crisis basis with threats of government shut downs and defaults through the next election. By making the BBA his final legislative action in Congress, outgoing Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) provides some “breathing room” for newly installed Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) who will not have to deal with this crisis immediately, which would likely divide his own party.

Outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) negotiated a final package with the White House and Democrats in Congress, although most Republicans in the Senate and House voted against the final package.  The automatic across-the-board sequestration cuts we have written about previously will not be triggered at this time.

What’s next?

Congress passed a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) in September to keep the government open through December 11. Appropriators will now have a few short weeks to pass new funding levels before the December 11 expiration of the CR. In the next week or so, House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees will be given new funding targets enabling them to re-do their funding measures. Congress will have just over a month to reconsider funding levels, possible policy riders, and craft a final package—likely to be a massive Omnibus Funding Bill to send to the President for his signature.

Why should libraries care?

Priority funding for library programs in earlier appropriations discussions fared well, but is no guarantee that these levels will hold. House and Senate appropriators will be revisiting all program funding levels and while additional funding will be available overall, advocates for many programs will be urging Congress to add increased funding or restore previously eliminated programs, possibly pitting program against program. ALA will be working to “protect our turf” in the coming weeks.

For the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA)—the only federal program exclusively for libraries–current year funding (FY15) is $180.9 million. The President’s budget requested an increase to $237.4 million while House and Senate appropriators adopted a smaller increase of $181.1 in the House and $181.8 in the Senate.

School library funding, Innovative Approaches to Literacy (IAL), is receiving $25 million in FY15. The President’s budget request and the House Committee bill did not provide any funding. The Senate Appropriations Committee did provide level funding of $25 million for IAL in FY16.

In addition, appropriators will be considering policy “riders” that could be added to the final Omnibus package. We expect a number of riders to be proposed dealing with a wide range of issues, including Planned Parenthood funding, regulatory relief, and other controversial issues. For example, ALA had been working to oppose a policy rider in the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations that would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from expending any funding to implement its net neutrality rules while litigation is pending.

What can you do?

The library community cannot expect that increased funding levels in the BBA will ensure LSTA and IAL funding will be guaranteed. Members of Congress, in particular Members on the Appropriations Committee, need to continue to hear how important LSTA and IAL are to their constituents back home. Investing in libraries – and education generally – is a necessary investment in communities across the country.

Our message to Congress is simple. Supporting libraries supports local communities in many ways. LSTA and IAL provides support, for example, to school libraries working with children to develop literacy skills, to public libraries to provide high-speed access for patrons seeking to obtain a GED or apply for a job, to support libraries seeking to build a 21st Century Library, ensure libraries can provide community gatherings, and allow patrons to secure government documents and file forms.

About Kevin Maher

Kevin Maher is the assistant director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations.

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