Monday, August 09, 2021

Understanding the Budget Resolution

David Super

      A series of votes over the weekend put the Senate on course to finish the bipartisan infrastructure bill in the wee hours of Tuesday morning or, at the latest, during the day Tuesday.  Several Republicans, including Minority Leader McConnell, voted to advance the legislation over the weekend, assuring its success.  The bipartisan bill bears little resemblance to President Trump’s privatizing “infrastructure” proposals.  They supported it nonetheless to demonstrate that the Senate is not irretrievably broken – and hence need not abolish the filibuster.  The objections of former President Trump and ideological opponents of increased spending were insufficient to overcome these institutional imperatives. 

     The Senate next will turn to the concurrent budget resolution for the upcoming fiscal year.  Although the budget resolution theoretically is the opening stage of the congressional budget process, establishing broad goals and limits, in practice appropriators have been hard at work for some time now.  Today, the budget resolution’s function is much more specific than when the Congressional Budget Act created this process almost half a century ago.  First, the budget resolution is a procedural prerequisite to moving legislation under “budget reconciliation” rules, which preclude filibusters.  Without an adopted concurrent budget resolution, Republican senators can easily block any Democratic priorities.  And second, the debate around the budget resolution provides an important opportunity for various actors to signal what should, and should not, be in the final reconciliation legislation.  These two functions operate on parallel tracks. 

     Under the Congressional Budget Act, the House and Senate Budget Committees’ authority to report out legislation entitled to expedited treatment as a reconciliation bill is contingent on the House and Senate having agreed to a concurrent budget resolution that includes “reconciliation instructions” – directives to increase or decrease entitlement spending or revenues – for at least one committee in each chamber. 

     During the first two years of President Reagan’s term, a coalition of Republicans and conservative “boll weevil” Democrats employed these reconciliation instructions force reluctant committees to propose spending cuts within their jurisdictions.  (Congress reverted to this model to slash anti-poverty programs in 1996 and 2006.) 

     From the mid-1980s through 1993, budget resolutions produced reconciliation bills that combined budget cuts in some areas with expansions in others (e.g., cuts to Medicare provider reimbursements with broader Medicaid eligibility).  Skillful drafting prevented committees from evading their unwelcome obligations to cut by foregoing the designated increases in other areas.  The ultimate mixed reconciliation bill was passed in 2010 as part of the process of enacting the Affordable Care Act. 

     Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump relied on reconciliation to enact massive tax cuts that unambiguously increased the deficit, applying the reconciliation tool to a purpose opposite to the one for which it was designed.  President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) earlier this year followed that model, this time with both revenue reductions and new spending measures. 

     The budget resolution that the Senate will begin to debate this week returns to the model of seeking a mixed reconciliation bill, obliging the tax-writing committees to report out revenue-raising changes to corporate taxes, transnational taxation, and the top tax brackets while also granting reconciliation protection to numerous expansions in social programs seen as investments in human infrastructure.  The budget resolution does not envision offsets fully paying for the expansions in spending and tax expenditures in the legislation; the resolution’s final terms will, however, determine the extent of deficit financing that is allowed.  Thereafter, if the tax-writing committees wish to bow to an interest group objecting to one of the revenue-raising measures in the bill, those committees will have to come up with a substitute source of revenues.  This prospect should make those committees somewhat more resistant to pressure than they otherwise might be. 

     The budget resolution itself is little more than a large mass of numbers spliced with some budgetary jargon.  Likely fewer than two dozen people alive can read it as written.  One of these, however, is the Senate parliamentarian, who will rule on points of order that may be raised against the eventual reconciliation bill this fall based on the resolution’s final terms.  The budget resolution’s terms, as opaque as they may be, are therefore important to determining which committees may contribute material to the reconciliation legislation and how much each committee’s provisions may affect the deficit.  For example, if the budget resolution had given no reconciliation instruction to the judiciary committees, they could not have proposed a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants (which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores as having a cost) in the reconciliation bill.  In fact, however, the budget resolution does include money for those committees.

     Because the budget resolution itself is so impenetrable, a parallel struggle occurs over perceptions of what substantive measures it envisions.  The starting points here are the explanatory materials released by the budget committees, describing in general terms what policies they assumed would be in the reconciliation bill when they selected the numbers in the budget resolution.  Neither inclusions nor exclusions in these lists are binding, but proposals they mention begin with some presumption of inclusion (which advocates then seek to magnify).  Proposals not explicitly mentioned, such as modernization of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for low-income elderly people and those with disabilities, can still gain inclusion if one of the specified programs loses political momentum or if its advocates can persuade the committee of jurisdiction to offset the cost somewhere else.  This is much easier to do for the tax-writing committees (which also have jurisdiction over SSI) than it is for other committees. 

     Advocates of measures not included in the budget committees’ “assumptions”, or opponents of measures that are, commonly ask senators to offer amendments to the budget resolution declaring that the provision in question is, or is not, included in the resolution’s assumptions.  These amendments, like the committees’ initial materials, are non-binding, but they carry considerable weight if they can win adoption. 

     The Congressional Budget Act gives each party fifteen hours for debate on the budget resolution.  When the Senate is operating in a cooperative spirit, the two parties commonly agree to yield a large fraction of their time.  The Senate is not a particularly happy place these days, but senators do have vacation plans, and Majority Leader Schumer has made clear that the Senate is not going anywhere until it adopts the budget resolution. 

     In theory, senators may offer and debate amendments to the budget resolution during the thirty hours of general debate; a few actually might.  Most senators, however, hold their amendments until the time for debate is exhausted.  Any amendments remaining at that time are then voted upon back-to-back, typically with one minute of debate on each side before the Senate starts voting.  Some amendments offered during this “vote-a-rama” are serious efforts to modify the budget resolution; most are essentially “gotcha” amendments, forcing senators from the other party to vote on an issue that divides their constituency.  Vote-a-rama amendments often are drafted deceptively, with the sound-bite description immensely appealing and an embrace of toxic policies buried below.  With little time to read and learn, many senators cast votes that they quickly come to regret.  A common problem with moving legislation arises when a key senator voted against one of its policies on a vote-a-rama amendment and is afraid to back-track. 

     Some Republicans may seek to embarrass Democrats with an amendment targeting the budget resolution’s authorization for partial deficit-financing for the reconciliation legislation.  This became more difficult Friday when CBO reported that the bipartisan infrastructure bill is also significantly deficit-financed.  And using reconciliation to increase the deficit did not bother Republicans when voting for the 2017 tax legislation even though the economy was far healthier, and in far less need of stimulus, then than it is now. 

     Once the Senate approves a budget resolution, the House will have a choice of approving the Senate’s version or amending the resolution and sending it back.  A conference committee seems unlikely because it would offer considerable prospects for additional delay.  The two chambers then are likely to spend much of the Fall crafting reconciliation legislation consistent with the outline set out in the budget resolution. 


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