Congress unveils a surreal budget reel that only plays backwards

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The fall session of Congress is always jam-packed with fiscal frenzy as the new budget year (FY 2022) looms just over the horizon on October first. Traditionally the congressional budget resolution is adopted by May 15, and the House and Senate appropriations committees report and pass most, if not all, of the 12 regular appropriations bills by the August recess, leaving September to reconcile differences. 

With all the delays caused by the pandemic, both in committees and on the floor, and the change in administrations, some delays were to be expected this year.  Nevertheless, the House managed to report all of the regular appropriations bills by mid-July and pass all but one (defense) by July 29.  The Senate, meantime, has yet pass any of the dozen spending measures.  

What is strange about this fiscal round is that it was not preceded by adoption of the usual concurrent resolution on the budget — the lead engine that pulls all subsequent budgetary actions on spending, revenues, deficit, and debt.  The budget resolution has been effectively relegated to caboose status while the remaining budgetary boxcars have been sidetracked into a dark tunnel.  The congressional budget process, which was designed to provide full member participation and public transparency at every step, has been re-routed through the backrooms of majority party councils, only to reemerge in late summer.  

This late-unfolding process is like a surreal budget reel that only plays in reverse, like an old, silent film from the 1920s in which certain scenes are replayed backwards at high speeds for comic effect. Only this budget reel is for real.

There is a plausible explanation for all this unspooling effect and that is that in 2019 Congress produced a two-year budget agreement that allowed for skipping a budget resolution in the second year. But that agreement only applied to budget years 2020 and ’21, and not the pending fiscal 2022 budget. And yet, that is the hook on which the current contorted spectacle hangs. Congress is in effect “deeming” the projected spending levels for this round to be carried forward from the previous year’s levels, thereby allowing the appropriations committees to set their overall spending allocations and suballocations.  

This scenario does not preclude the eventual adoption of a budget resolution, and that is exactly what the plan is going forward. By waiting until now, Congress has reserved to itself the ability to do some big things backwards to accommodate the new administration’s priorities. It will do so wholly through the use of a familiar device called “reconciliation” instructions that are tucked into a budget resolution. The original idea of reconciliation was to enable Congress to make adjustments in deficit or surplus levels by changing underlying revenue and/or mandatory spending laws. That reasoned approach has since taken on the added advantage of circumventing a Senate filibuster that requires 60 votes to end debate (invoke cloture).  

Under reconciliation rules, overall debate time is limited to 20 hours (usually much shorter in the House by special rule), and only a majority vote is required for passage. Both parties, when in the majority, have used this escape valve to push through their priorities, whether tax reductions by Republicans or revenue and/or entitlement enhancements by Democrats.  

Beginning this week, all this is playing-out as the Senate prepares to debate and vote on a massive, $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” (human infrastructure) reconciliation bill. After clearing a smaller, $1.2 trillion “Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act” on Aug. 10, the Senate proceeded to debate and adopt (50-49), a budget resolution containing the reconciliation instructions for committees to report their pieces of the costlier, social safety net expansion.

The politics of this latter measure has become an interesting, intra-party squabble among Democrats. Their leaders have acceded to progressives’ demands that the smaller infrastructure bill not be sent to the White House before the larger bill has been passed by both chambers.  

In the House, however, a group of nine Democratic members has vowed not to vote for the latter unless the former is first passed and sent to the president. Keep in mind that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has such a narrow majority that losing even three Democrats can doom a measure if all Republicans vote the other way, as expected.

That is what’s being served-up for this back-to-work fall session. House and Senate Democratic leaders are faced with the prospect of rebellion and defeat no matter how they thread the needle. And, in this instance, a stitch in time won’t save a dime. The only real question remaining is how much bigger a hole Congress will blow in the deficit if anything survives.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.

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