When House and Senate negotiators gathered on Oct. 30 in a U.S. Capitol meeting room to open formal talks aimed at producing a compromise 2014 budget resolution, it was an unusual event. The last such budget blueprint to clear Congress was back in 2009.
There indeed was lots of talk, but little back-and-forth discussion. The conference-committee session, which stretched more than two and a half hours, was taken up almost totally by lawmakers, one-by-one, outlining their general fiscal positions. But that was about what was expected.
Although some legislators did touch on broad topics, such as the need for tax reform, it appears more likely that the conference committee's product—if it achieves one—will be relatively narrow.
With the recently ended 16-day federal government shutdown fresh in conferees' minds, some said it was important to agree on a 2014 budget blueprint and avoid another closure.
Construction officials also should keep a particularly close eye on whether the conferees find a way to replace the budget sequester's mandatory, fixed-percentage cuts with other reductions.
The fiscal 2013 sequester, which took effect March 1, cut construction programs by a total of about $4 billion, ENR has estimated. Among the programs sliced were military construction, Dept. of Energy defense environmental cleanup and Environmental Protection Agency water infrastructure.
But the ground rules for 2013 sequester round spared other important construction accounts, notably those financed through trust funds. Thus, $39.1 billion in federal-aid highways aid—the vast majority of the program's total—was exempt from the sequester.
The budget conferees almost certainly won't specify amounts for line-item programs—that's traditionally the role of the Appropriations Committees. But they could set overall levels for defense and non-defense discretionary spending, at least for fiscal 2014.
The top House and Senate conferees did express a desire to replace the sequester. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who also chairs the joint conference, said, "We all agree that there's a smarter way to cut spending." (See text of Ryan's prepared statement.)
The lead Senate conferee, Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said the "absolute minimum" the conference should produce is a budget level for the short term and a way to replace the sequester. (Text of Murray's prepared statement.)
Murray said she's "ready to agree to some tough spending cuts" to replace sequestration, but added that Republicans also will have to compromise, by ending "some wasteful tax loopholes and special-interest subsidies."
Conferees face a tight deadline of Dec. 13 to produce an agreement—one reason why a long-lasting "grand bargain" probably isn't in the offing.
The chairs of the House and Senate appropriations committees—Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)—want the budget conferees to move even sooner on one important point.
The day after the initial budget conference meeting, Rogers and Mikulski asked the conferees to agree on overall fiscal 2014 and 2015 discretionary spending caps by Nov. 22.