Passing a Budget Resolution: It Ain’t Easy
Kenneth Gold | January 20, 2016
Like last year, when Republicans held majorities in both the House and the Senate, it’s generally assumed that Congress will pass a budget resolution this year. House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price (R-GA) has stated he intends to write an FY17 budget resolution that will balance the budget in ten years. But even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he intends to pass one, it looks increasingly less likely that the Senate will do so this year.
The FY17 federal budget cycle will kick off February 9, when President Obama submits his eighth and final budget request to Congress. The next step in the process is for the House and Senate to each pass its own version of the budget resolution by March 15; and then that the two chambers reconcile their differences and approve a congressional budget resolution no later than April 15.
Over the first 35 years following passage of the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, which first provided for the adoption of a congressional budget, passage was relatively routine. In recent years this hasn’t always been the case, and it’s become especially difficult when there’s split party control of the two chambers. Until last year’s approval of the FY16 budget resolution, Congress hadn’t passed one since 2010, when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate; and even with Republican majorities in both houses, last year’s passage was anything but smooth.
All the Young Dudes
Republicans finally managed to reach agreement among their own factions by keeping discretionary spending in the budget resolution under the Budget Control Act (BCA) cap, but plussing up defense through a massive increase in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, which isn’t counted within the budget caps. However, the truce between the Republican leadership and ultra conservatives in the House was an uneasy one, and even with a compromise in place, House Republicans were able to pass only six of the 12 appropriations bills. The process was derailed for good in the House in July by proposed amendments concerning the confederate flag. Not surprisingly, not a single FY16 appropriations bill came to the floor in the Senate.
An October 1 government shutdown was avoided with passage of a ten-week continuing resolution (CR), but prospects for a mid-December government shutdown as well as a default on the debt ceiling appeared increasingly likely. In late October however, seemingly out of nowhere, then Speaker Boehner unveiled and Congress quickly passed the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act, which lifted the BCA caps on discretionary spending, and paved the way for an omnibus bill to fund the federal government for FY16, and suspended the debt ceiling until March 2017.
At the onset of the Second Session of the 114th Congress, with Republican majorities in both chambers, conditions would seem to be in place for easy passage of a congressional budget resolution. The main function of the budget resolution, providing the discretionary spending level (the 302a allocation), has already been set by the 2015 two-year budget deal. By the same token, however, the fact that the 302a allocation is already agreed to makes passage of a congressional budget resolution to set spending levels unnecessary.
But the budget resolution does more than set discretionary spending levels and provide for reconciliation. Although its main function is to set spending for the current fiscal year, it requires a budget plan for at least five years, and includes both spending as well as revenue levels. It further provides a vehicle for the majority to outline broad policy goals, which in recent years have focused primarily on plans to balance the budget within a certain time frame.
The FY15 congressional budget resolution included a 10-year plan to balance the federal budget, proposing to cut approximately $5 trillion from non-defense discretionary spending, as well as making significant cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, and to federal spending on higher education. The previous Republican passed FY13 and FY14 House budget resolutions promised to balance the budget in even fewer years, using even deeper cuts, but were essentially political statements never intended to pass a Democratic Senate.
With the 2015 budget deal having already set the discretionary spending levels for FY 16 and FY17, this year’s situation is similar to 2014, when discretionary spending had been set by the 2013 Ryan-Murray budget deal. That year, Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) never even attempted to write a Senate budget resolution.
There’s little reason to doubt that the House will pass an FY17 budget resolution that promises to eliminate the deficit in ten years, as it’s unlikely to face much opposition within the Republican Party. Assuming it follows the pattern of recent House Republican budgets, it will balance the budget in a decade or less by making massive cuts in discretionary spending and some level of cuts in certain mandatory programs, but at the same time decrease revenue.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the 2015 2-year budget deal increases spending by $157 billion over ten years; but lowers revenue by $523 billion. Therefore a budget resolution that balances the budget in 10 years will need to propose spending reductions in the remaining eight years that will need to be even deeper than those proposed in earlier Republican budgets. That may well result in making the budget resolution a really hard sell in the Republican Senate, especially in light of electoral considerations.
Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats in 2016, while Democrats are defending only 10. In addition, seven of those Republican-held seats are in states that President Barack Obama won in 2012, and five of them are in states that the president won in both 2008 and 2012. Going on record in support of massive spending cuts may not be something those vulnerable Senators want to do in an election year.
In the Senate, the budget resolution can’t be filibustered, and debate is limited to 20 hours. But Senators can offer unlimited numbers of amendments, and often do, even though debate on individual amendments is often limited to 30 seconds, followed by 10-minute votes. The process is called the Vote-a-Rama, and it permits the opposition to force the majority to vote on issues that would never be brought to the floor under regular procedure. (See these examples from March 2015.) This is likely something that vulnerable Republicans up for reelection want to avoid.
Where Are We Now?
In addition to the fate of those individual senators, maintaining the Senate is also at stake, as Majority Leader McConnell is well aware. Interestingly, the 2015 budget agreement includes a provision (Sec. 102) that enforces spending and revenue numbers, as well as committee allocations; and states that the provision would expire if Congress passed an FY17 budget resolution. Since such a provision is normally included in the budget resolution conference report, it’s possible that Senate Republicans were already anticipating at the time of the budget deal that there would be no FY17 Senate budget resolution.
The most important function of the congressional budget resolution is to set the top line on discretionary spending, which the 2-year budget deal makes unnecessary for FY17. And it may be that the Republican leadership is already resigned to doing nothing more this year than holding positioning votes in support of their 2016 election prospects, including supporting whoever the Republican presidential nominee is.
But if Republicans hold any hope of passing major legislation in the Second Session of the 114th Congress, such as tax or entitlement reform, they could only do so by using reconciliation, which isn’t possible without a congressional budget resolution in place. The House Freedom Caucus, the faction responsible for Speaker Boehner’s resignation, has publicly informed Speaker Ryan that it expects to see both welfare and tax reform passed this year through reconciliation. This will be interesting to watch.