Commentary: The Rocky Path toward a Budget Resolution

Regardless of which party is in power, springtime in the nation's capital always means one thing: budget debates. After the president submits his budget proposal in February, Congress has until April 15 to pass a budget resolution, a non-binding plan for the spending and revenue levels that congressional appropriations committees are to follow when creating the spending bills for the coming fiscal year. However, in election years, members of Congress are reluctant to go on record as increasing the federal budget deficit, especially since budget resolutions are not absolutely necessary to fund the federal government.

Since 2000, Congress has only passed a concurrent budget resolution (a budget resolution passed by both houses) once during an election year. Here in 2010, with congressional Democrats expecting a hard fight in November, there has been talk of skipping the FY 2011 budget resolution and simply proceeding to the year's appropriations bills. Congressional leadership is reportedly even considering pushing off votes on the appropriations bills until after the elections. But the budget resolution is a powerful tool in the spending process, and not passing it now could make it more difficult to spend more responsibly down the line.

The main function of the budget resolution is to prescribe spending levels, not to actually authorize spending. The resolution sets spending limits for the entire discretionary budget, for each appropriations committee, and for any other committee with jurisdiction over spending (budget resolutions also include revenue floors, meaning taxes cannot fall below a certain level). Any bill violating these levels could trigger a point of order, a procedural hurdle that could remove the bill from consideration, although the point of order can be waived by a majority vote in the House or a three-fifths vote in the Senate.

The second function of the budget resolution is that it allows for a procedure known as "budget reconciliation." In the budget resolution, there can be instructions for certain congressional committees to change current law so that overall spending and/or revenue levels conform to the limits set out in the budget resolution.

Most importantly, reconciliation lowers the voting threshold in the Senate to only a simple majority, down from the three-fifths normally needed to overcome a filibuster. Additionally, reconciliation instructions limit debate on the ensuing changes to twenty hours and also limit amendments to those ruled as “germane” to the budget. While this provision is not important in the House, which routinely sets limits on debate and amendments, it means that revenue and spending bills included in the reconciliation instructions in the Senate are not subject to filibusters. However, reconciliation can only be used to pass provisions that lower the federal budget deficit. For instance, a provision addressing how the military should try suspected terrorists would trigger a point of order. These rules are intended to prevent non-budget items from avoiding Senate filibuster rules.

Therefore, from the standpoint of the majority party, reconciliation can be a potent tool. Without reconciliation, congressional leadership must find 60 votes to pass spending bills and face mountains of amendments, which can be difficult. Faced with this high hurdle, the leadership might make compromises and deals to win more votes, deals such as the ones used to round up votes for the recent health care reform package. But with the lower vote threshold provided by reconciliation, congressional leadership can afford to lose a few votes. Instead of making these side deals, leadership can push a cleaner bill, without carve-outs or loopholes. By limiting debate on the budget, reconciliation can lead to better policy, as the necessity of so-called horse-trading is reduced significantly.

On the other hand, the reconciliation process has been used in highly partisan ways to push the president’s agenda. For example, it was used in 1981 to push President Reagan's budget. Just when it appeared the Reagan budget was dead, an omnibus spending bill was moved under reconciliation rules. Similarly, the Bush tax cuts of 2001, 2003, and 2006 all were done through the reconciliation process.

The FY 2011 budget resolution is already late. By law, Congress must pass it by April 15, although there is no consequence to missing the deadline. On April 21, the Senate Budget Committee will begin marking up its budget resolution, and both Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Rep. John Spratt (D-SC), the chairs of the two budget committees, have publically stated their support for completing the resolution. But in today's atmosphere, with Democrats facing possible losses at the ballot box in November and partisanship ramping up to new heights, passing a budget resolution in either chamber will require that Congress make the difficult decisions that it was ultimately elected to make.

Editor's Note: This article has been modified since its original publication date to clarify the role of reconciliation in the federal budget process.

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