By Chris LaPage
As the warmth of summer turns to the chill of autumn, I can’t help but feel like Bill Murray’s character in the 1993 classic movie, Groundhog Day. It has nothing to do with the familiar change in seasons, but I can’t help the feeling of déjà vu that creeps in at the start of every federal fiscal year. The 2020 federal fiscal year started on October 1 and once again we are operating under a continuing resolution instead of a budget. On September 27, 2019, President Trump signed a continuing resolution into law that keeps the government funded through November 21, 2019. Unfortunately, this leaves federal agencies with the uncertainty of not knowing their full 2020 budget, which can wreak havoc on their plans and timing for soliciting proposals for various grant programs. Naturally, this creates anxiety amongst grantseekers as they anxiously await to hear when, or even if, certain programs will be available in 2020.
Fortunately, federal agencies (as well as experienced grant professionals) can look to the recent past to navigate the situation. Take a deep breath and relax because the grants landscape is much more predictable than it seems, even in the absence of a federal budget. The following Q&A is intended to help grant-seekers “read the tea leaves” when it comes to grant programming in 2020.
What is a Continuing Resolution and How does it Impact Grant Programming?
A continuing resolution funds the government at the previous year levels, prorated to the specified time period. In this case, government agencies are funded at 2019 levels through November 21, 2019. This creates several issues for federal grantmaking agencies and the release of grant programs, however. The first problem is that the prorated funding level may not even be enough for the agency to administer a previously established grant program, let alone fund any new projects. The more pressing issue is that once a federal budget is passed down the road, it may override the continuing resolution and retroactively cut or decrease funding for certain grant programs.
Considering the uncertainty of what funding will look like for 2020, the main impact grant seekers can expect is that federal grantmakers will delay the release of anticipated grant programs. The truth is that Congress has rarely passed a federal budget on time in the 21st Century, so agencies are used to operating under these conditions. Since agencies are typically doing future and current planning in the first and final quarters of a fiscal year, the bulk of grant programming is released during the second and third quarters (January through June). In that respect, one wouldn’t even expect much of a delay as long as a full budget was passed by end of the first federal quarter (December 31).
In cases where there is no budget by the second quarter of the federal fiscal year, delays become more problematic. Agencies may begin releasing solicitations with language indicating that awards will be subject to appropriations – knowing that the anticipated money may not become available. This can have a chilling effect on grantseekers as proposals require a massive investment of time and resources to develop. When funding availability is less certain, applicants may be less willing to submit a proposal. However, federal agencies are more apt to hold off the solicitation all together rather than potentially waste everyone’s time. On the plus side, these agencies are usually waiting to hit the ground running once the final budget is approved and signed into law.
Should I Look to the President’s Budget for Guidance on Planning my Grantseeking Efforts?
No… Why Not?
Perhaps that answer is too short and deserves some explanation. In the U.S. Constitution it is established that the “power of the purse” lies with Congress. Meaning, all appropriation bills must originate in the House of Representatives and pass both chambers of Congress before it goes to the President to be signed into law. Since the President must ultimately sign that document, his or her opinion is certainly a key piece of the puzzle (unless Congress has two-thirds majority votes to override a Presidential veto), but it isn’t the end all be all. Just know that regardless of what is proposed in the President’s Proposed Budget, it does not amount to much more than a recommendation to Congress.
At its core, the President’s Budget is a political instrument that outlines the administration’s funding priorities. The final budget that is ultimately signed into law seldom resembles the funding levels recommended by the administration. While it does provide some context for the priorities of the President, it is nothing more than an initial offer in a long negotiation. Since all bills must originate in the House, technically, you cannot even call it a starting point as the political leadership in that body gets to draft the initial legislation.
If we look at the history of Presidential Budgets, grantseekers should be relieved that in the grand scheme of federal appropriations the executive budget carries little weight. Over the years, Democratic and Republican presidents have called on the consolidation or outright elimination of many popular grant programs. The Trump administration has previously called for the elimination of programs like Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and 21st Century Community Learning Centers to name two. Time and time again, however, Congress stands as roadblock to these attempts.
How Can we Be Sure a Divided Congress will Protect Grant Programs?
This is a very fair question in at time where we see little compromise in government between Democrats and Republicans. Certainly, when it comes to overall defense versus domestic spending, battle lines are generally drawn on party lines. The same is true of the fight over entitlement programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. However, the bulk of competitive grant programs that public sector and non-profit agencies target are not subject to these traditional Democrat-Republican fault lines.
Instead, there is another factor in play that unites the conservative Republican lawmaker from Oklahoma and the liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. I would term it the politics of representation. Representatives in the House are elected to represent their specific districts while Senators represent their entire state. The aforementioned CDBG program is a prime example of how the politics of representation surpass party alignment. These grants have survived since 1974 despite the frequent attempts made by several presidential administrations to eliminate the program. The reason is because small rural communities in Kansas rely on this funding stream just as much as New York City to deliver critical services to their respective residents.
Grant programs are a key vehicle to ensure that congressional representatives can deliver actual results, in the form of funding, to their local districts. Particularly since the elimination of earmarks, or pork barrel funding, that was popular in the past. Think of the potential photograph and publicity an elected representative gets when a local school district wins a federal grant to deliver a new, innovative after-school STEM education program in their district. Now imagine how his or her constituency and local press will react when that same representative is being accused of voting for a budget that eliminates these popular programs.
The politics of representation is one of the primary reasons the President’s Budget provides so little value. If it was a Democrat-Republican issue at its core, grants would be at risk any time one party gains complete control of the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Yet, as many times as this has occurred in history, grant programming endures. In the case of CDBG, the program has survived for 3.5 decades.
What Can we Expect and Why?
It only takes two words to summarize what grant seekers can expect for 2020: status quo. First, the continuing resolution essentially keeps funding levels the same as the previous year, over the specified time period. On top of that, the politics of representation make it very difficult to eliminate established grant funding streams. The last several years have seen consistent funding levels across all agencies and grant programs. If anything, there has actually been a low to moderate increase in funding levels. Therefore, you can generally expect that if an annual grant program was available in 2019, then it will be there this year as well.
In addition to the politics of representation, the fact that we are in a Presidential election year is another cue to expect little change from 2019. The average person pays much more attention to elections when the Presidential race is on the ticket. Nobody wants to be on the campaign trail defending controversial votes they made resulting in the elimination of popular grant programs. In fact, all parties are motivated to stay on message with their direction for the country and will be seeking a non-controversial final budget that is wrapped up as soon as possible. The last Presidential election cycle, for example, brought about a major two-year budget compromise between President Obama and Speaker Boehner. Elected officials are more than aware that the public will not tolerate a government shutdown, which is the result of a failure to pass a federal budget. Should a shutdown occur in an election year - that once “shoe in” win for re-election could quickly turn to a guaranteed loss. For that reason alone, politicians everywhere are much more willing to essentially carbon copy the 2019 budget if only to avoid the risk of shutdown.
In the end, the only uncertainty lies in what will be seen for new grant programs. Unfortunately, there is no fortune teller that can predict what we might see in that arena. However, understanding the traditional politics at play and recent history, you can expect continued compromise in certain areas. If we are to see new programming, it will likely be in the area of prevention, treatment and recovery efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. Another area of potential compromise is in the area of school safety and improvement of mental health services for students. But you can rest assured, the grant programs you care most about; they aren’t going anywhere.