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The budget and governing

The House and Senate have officially begun discussions to iron out differences between each chambers’ budget resolutions, a process that should result in a complete congressional budget for the first time in 6 years.  

This alone is a worthy accomplishment in the effort to return to “regular order.” In getting this process over the finish line, members of the House and Senate will have to make comprises sufficient to gain the support of majorities in each chamber, the hallmark of legislating.  

{mosads}But the budget process is a unique animal and purely partisan in nature – it is unlikely any Democrats will vote for the conference budget agreement. Passing laws is another matter entirely, and with less than a supermajority in the Senate and Barack Obama holding the veto pen, Congressional Republicans will have to consider far different choices than those they are considering in the budget conference. Therein lies the difference between budgeting and governing. 

The budget process is a fragmented one that begins with the submission of the president’s budget that is promptly ignored by Congress and concludes with the adoption of a budget by Congress that is ignored by the president. When the House and Senate are controlled by different parties, each chamber often ignores the other’s budget resolution and forgoes the conferencing process altogether.

These disparate processes coexist until both sides move on to passing actual laws: Congress passing bills the president is willing to sign. At a minimum, this requires sufficient agreement between Congressional Republicans, Democrats, and the administration on annual appropriations bills. The congressional budgets, passed without any Democratic support and procedurally divorced from the executive branch, specify what Congress intends to spend on defense and domestic spending. For both the House and the Senate, and likely in a conference agreement, these amounts fall well short of the amounts specified in the president’s budget. In the context of a debate on the budget, this is appropriate.  

The budget process is as much a policy-making document as it is a statement of principles. They are formulated and passed by the sitting majorities and represent a policy vision to contrast with that of the minority. As desirable as it may be, nobody actually thinks that President Obama will ever sign into law the bills that would achieve the budget levels specified in the House or Senate budgets. Nevertheless, it is Congress’s job to present that vision and the House and Senate should be commended for fulfilling that responsibility.  

When they are finished with that exercise, though, more work remains, and the calculus will need to change. The military will need to be funded, roads and bridges will need to be paved, and the National Institutes of Health will need to carry on its research. The House and Senate have put forward a vision that would achieve that, and adhere to current-law spending caps under the Budget Control Act. Unlike in the budgeting process, the White House and Congressional Democrats now get a meaningful vote too. To pass appropriations bills, at least in the Senate, some Democratic support will be as necessary as a presidential signature. But neither the Senate Democrats nor the administration have intimated a willingness to go along with a Republican plan to boost defense spending through spending related to war-funding, known as overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding. Rather, Democrats and the administration want to boost both defense and domestic spending. The administration, for example, has issued veto threats against spending measures that would boost defense spending and not domestic spending.  

In their efforts to pass a budget, House and Senate Republicans will need to reconcile important differences. To pass laws, Republicans and Democrats, Congress and the executive branch, will need to bridge divides of even greater distance. But there is precedent for this. At the end of 2013, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) forged an agreement that provided some relief under the Budget Control Act spending caps, and paid for that relief with mandatory savings, where the real money is. Both had previously advanced dramatically different budgets in their respective chambers, but when it came time to make policy, both were willing to forge a compromise that was ultimately sound on policy. Two year later, it’s time for a redux.

Gray is fiscal policy director at the American Action Forum.

Tags Barack Obama Patty Murray Paul Ryan

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