The Great Lakes and the fiscal…..slope?

I don’t know about you, but after months of reading about fiscal cliffs, sequestration, grand bargains, and a variety of other metaphors for the budget situation in Washington,  I could never figure out what it meant for Great Lakes restoration funding — except that it probably wasn’t good.

 Two days ago, at the Great Lakes Environmental Summit organized in the Capitol by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, I finally began to understand more about how these things all tie together. And I’m going to try to explain it here without botching the whole thing, confusing matters further, or putting everybody to sleep.

 I’ll start at the end: knowing more about this process doesn’t change the forecast for Great Lakes restoration funding. Nobody knows for sure what will happen. But the unity of the region (one staffer said, “bicameral, bipartisan agreement”) increases the odds for the lakes.

 So here’s how I understand it. Normally, the Great Lakes budget is set by appropriations subcommittees in the House and then adjusted in the Senate, based on an allocation given by the full appropriations committee. The appropriations committee number is part of the overall national budget the committee adopts. That budget is modified by the full House and Senate, passed as a budget resolution, signed by the President, and the government is funded for a full year.

 Simple in theory.

 Real life is never that simple, and especially now. For one thing, the appropriations committees have to try to stay within the framework of the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed several years ago (and so can amend in any year’s budget). And the President weighs in with his budget recommendation.

 The result of those two factors by themselves has led to gridlock in the budget process that’s gotten so bad that Congress hasn’t been able to pass a budget resolution, and instead has passed continuing resolutions extending last year’s budget just to keep the government’s doors open.

 But even that is easy compared to what’ s happened in the last year, with sequestration and grand budget deals. Sequestration, a law passed by Congress last year, sets automatic spending cuts for the budget — which essentially sets different limits than the Budget Control Act, and those limits also must be met. And the House Budget Committee wants to make steeper (and different) cuts — which means that yet another budget plan might be passed in the House and adjusted in the Senate.

 The bottom line is that the subcommittees that set the Great Lakes restoration budget won’t even get a number to work with until after all those other deals are worked out.

 When will that happen? March 27 is when the latest continuing budget resolution runs out, and if a new budget isn’t passed by then (or a new continuing resolution enacted), then parts of the government shut down. So that’s a pretty firm date.

 I’ve been told not to get confused by the date sequestration kicks in, which is March 1. Apparently sequestration automatically cuts spending…. until Congress changes the law. So if Congress adopts a budget by March 27, it can undo or redo sequestration.

 That’s the limit of my new-found budget knowledge. I leave you with two takeaways:

  • March 27 is the big deadline unless Congress passes another extension. We’ll have some sort of budget resolution by then.
  • Our chance to weigh in with Congress is between now and March 27 – after that, it may be too late. Most members of Congress probably can’t do anything right now while high-level negotiations are underway, but they can still hear from us that Great Lakes restoration funding is huge priority that needs to be maintained. That way when they do have a chance to act, they’ll be ready.

 One final thought. I heard at the meeting that we’re really not facing a fiscal cliff – it’s more like we’re sliding down a slope than falling over an edge. That makes sense to me. Fiscal slope may not be as dramatic, but tumbling down it still hurts and we still wind up at the bottom unless something is done. Let’s stay at the top.

 

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