Chances of FY '11 Budget Resolution Slipping Away

In case you hadn't noticed, it's getting late in the year. We're almost to the end of May, and Congress is starting to run out of legislative time. The week-long Memorial Day recess gets rid of next week, July 4th patriotism will consume another week, summer recess erases most of August and half of September, and Congressional leadership is aiming to adjourn in early October. And with Congress' already jammed legislative agenda, when is it going to get around to passing FY 2011's budget resolution? Answer: most likely never.

Congress always has a tough time with budgets in election years, and 2008 was the first time in several cycles that Congress managed the feat. This year, however, seems to be especially bad. The resolution should have been passed by both chambers by early May, but so far, it has only gotten through the Senate Budget Committee. The House Budget Committee hasn't even scheduled hearings on the resolution yet, indicating that House Democrats are still having problems reconciling ideological differences between their liberal and conservative wings.

Appropriations committees often begin reporting out bills by mid-June, meaning that it's getting awfully late for a budget resolution, which is supposed to provide guidance to the appropriations committees. Indeed, there has been a steady drumbeat of articles over the last couple weeks, many quoting Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, suggesting that a concurrent budget resolution is not happening anytime soon (although Conrad recently said that the Senate may vote on theirs sometime in June). At the same time, House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt isn't exactly optimistic about a resolution passing either, with CQ quoting him as saying "All I can say is that we're still stirring this soup, seeing if we can get something a majority will buy."

So what happens when there's no budget resolution? Turns out, it's not the end of the world. House appropriations committees can begin considering bills as soon as May 15, with or without a budget resolution. But there are benefits to passing a budget resolution, namely that it allows for the use of reconciliation and provides points of order for enforcing annual spending levels (mandatory spending and revenue levels, which are codified in law, can use the limits set out in the previous year's budget resolution).

In the absence of a resolution, Congress can instead pass something called a "deeming resolution," which would have most of the powers of a budget resolution but would not allow for reconciliation. The deeming resolution could take the form of a resolution or a bill (passed by a majority vote), and would set out spending levels for the appropriations committees just like a budget resolution would, bringing the points of order into play. It could even be incorporated into an appropriations bill, if Congressional leadership so chose. A deeming resolution can also "deem" a budget resolution passed by one house as having been passed by both houses, thus putting it into force, but if neither house seems ready to vote on a budget resolution, I'm not sure why they'd be willing to vote for a deeming resolution saying the same thing.

Conrad has floated the use of a deeming resolution, but it's unclear what form it would take. As we get closer to the summer, look for there to be more talk of a deeming resolution. Keep in mind Congress hasn't adopted a budget resolution after the first week in June since 1996.

The larger problem with not passing a budget resolution is what it bodes for the coming appropriations cycle. As it is, Congress has a problem getting through the whole process on time. Last year, Congress passed the final appropriations bill in late December, almost two months after the fiscal year started. And that was in a year when Congress had managed to pass the budget resolution in late April. At best, we'll have one in late June this year. Granted, the appropriations process has already started, and there is still a chance it could wrap up in time for the new fiscal year. But if Members can't agree on spending levels now, what are the odds of them doing it in September, a month away from an election that could end their electoral careers?

Image by Flickr user Robert van der Steeg used under a Creative Commons license.

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