With Tuesday's elections barely passed, congressional leaders are already negotiating behind the scenes on legislation that will determine the future of Promise and Choice Neighborhoods -- not just for the coming year, but quite possibly for years to come.
The future of both programs will depend on whether Congress can pass an end-of-year, catch-all omnibus budget bill when it returns for a lame duck session on November 15, and on what levels of funding both programs receive. The federal government is currently operating under a continuing resolution that is funding all federal programs (other than entitlements) at last year's levels through December 3.
Best Case Scenario: If it quacks like a duck ...
The odds that Congress will successfully pass an omnibus budget bill in a lame duck session are far from clear. Democrats remain nominally in control of both chambers until January. This is enough in the House, where a budget bill could be passed relatively easily. But it could be blocked in the Senate, where Republicans wield the filibuster and other blocking tactics.
Whether Senate Republicans will choose to use that blocking power is another matter. The Republican Senate leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is reportedly willing to cut a deal to get this year's budget behind them. Under the rumored deal, discretionary spending would come in at $1.108 trillion, or about 1% less than the level assumed in the House and Senate earlier this year.
That isn't great news for the administration's neighborhood programs. Promise Neighborhoods was funded at just $60 million by the House Appropriations Committee this summer and just $20 million in the Senate. Choice Neighborhoods did better, receiving $250 million in the Senate, while the House provided $200 million for its predecessor, HOPE VI. The final number for Choice Neighborhoods is likely to be in the $200-250 million range. The administration's requested $40 million for the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program is also awaiting a final decision.
The 1% cut being considered in the Senate could force these funding levels even lower. Protecting and/or obtaining higher funding levels for neighborhood programs in this political environment would require the White House to intervene and congressional leaders to go along.
The Worse and Worst Case Scenarios
Absent action of this kind, the alternatives may be rough going. If Congress is not able to agree on a budget before Christmas, it would most likely pass another temporary continuing resolution instead. That would effectively punt budgetary decisions into next year, when Republicans will control the House and have more influence in the Senate. House Republican leaders have already said they want to roll back spending to 2008 levels. And while Sen. McConnell has indicated a willingness to cut a deal, he may find his own Republican caucus challenging him. Rumblings are already being heard on the House side against a deal of this kind.
A third possibility, outlined by some, is one where Republicans in Congress block any action on the budget and threaten a pre-Christmas government shutdown unless even deeper spending cuts are made. This seems unlikely.
The best option is one where Congress passes an omnibus budget bill this month that protects spending for neighborhood programs. Let's hope this happens. With Republicans in control of the House starting in January, whatever funding levels are enacted for the current budget year are likely to be the ceiling for the next several years, at least until after the next election.
Finally, regardless of these short-term budgetary decisions, the Obama administration needs to start thinking now about new ways to fund neighborhood programs, not just with programs like Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods, and Byrne, but through other existing funding streams. The administration is now working out the details of its next budget proposal, due to be released next February. Let's hope this long-term thinking has begun.