The new Budget Drama and Procedural Inventiveness. Got to love the House.

Josh Huder | February 24, 2016

The optimism following the 2-year budget deal struck last October is officially over. Many House majority members who were unhappy with the deal remain unhappy. Over the past month House conservatives have signaled they will not vote for a budget unless they find $30 billion in cuts.

Enacting a budget (or appropriations) below the discretionary numbers in the 2-year deal appears to be a nonstarter for the leadership. So conservatives are attempting to find the savings in mandatory programs. They are circulating an interesting plan to reform major entitlement programs on appropriations bills through the reconciliation process. Here are the major take-aways from that last sentence: conservatives want to circumvent the House Ways & Means Committee, authorize changes to mandatory spending through the discretionary spending process, and do so using a straight majority process rarely used for appropriations.

This is a huge deal. It’s also a lot to unpack. It combines several processes into a plan akin to procedural acrobatics. It’s not impossible, though it would be unprecedented.

The first criticism of the plan is it violates House rules. Those rules state that members cannot legislation (insert programmatic language to change, say, Medicare) in appropriations bills. Is this true? Yes. Does it matter? No. The reality is for the last couple of decades this rule is waived (read: is not binding) any time an appropriations bill is brought to the floor. So would this rule violation prevent this mega-bill from receiving a vote? No.

The second criticism is that you can’t use reconciliation to pass appropriations bills. Actually, you can though it has only happened twice, the last time being in 1981. Further, it was used for rescissions, which retract previously allocated discretionary budget authority. It has never been used to circumvent a committee of jurisdiction or provide budget authority for executive agencies. In this respect, this is a huge unprecedented step for both reconciliation and the appropriations committees.

The plan has the advantage of attaching mandatory spending cuts to must pass appropriations bills. There is a catch though: they can’t touch Social Security. That is expressly forbidden in the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act, and would be subject to a 60-vote point of order in the Senate, something conservatives are using this process to avoid.

Keep in mind this plan is extremely hypothetical. If they somehow navigate the minefield of very powerful people in the House (like Ways & Means Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX)), its chances in the Senate are very small at best. Regardless, the plan gets big time kudos on style points. What the plan lacks in regular order it more than makes up for in procedural jujitsu-y-ness.

Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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Categories: 114th Congress, Budget and Appropriations, Congressional Leadership, Federal Budget and Appropriations, Legislative Process, Revise & Extend, Updates