Budget 101: The Differences between the President's Budget and a Budget Resolution

Today, the House released its budget resolution, a document laying out that chamber's budget priorities for the coming fiscal year. The budget resolution is often compared to another document, the president's budget, which is usually released a few weeks earlier. But these two documents are very different in both content and purpose. The budget resolution creates a budgetary framework for Congress, while the president's budget is more of a strategic planning document for federal agencies. These differences make it difficult to compare and contrast the documents' competing policies.

The president's budget, which is produced by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), has a much different purpose than the congressional budget resolution. While it is frequently used as a political messaging document, the president's budget is also a line-by-line presentation of all the programs in the federal government. Each program is listed, explained, and given a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Essentially, the president's budget can be seen as a strategic plan for every agency for the coming fiscal year. Congressional budgeters often use these budget numbers as a starting point for the 12 annual spending bills that fund the operations of the federal government. In addition, the president's budget lays out his proposed tax policy changes for the next ten years.

An example of the text of the president's budget (FY 2013)

A congressional budget resolution is a much more limited document, as it merely sets top-level fiscal policy for Congress. According to law, each house passes its own budget resolution, and then both hash out their differences to create a final resolution, called a "concurrent resolution." This resolution sets discretionary spending levels, which fund non-entitlement programs such as defense and education, along with revenue and overall spending limits for the next ten years. It may also contain "reconciliation instructions," which make it easier for the Senate to avoid a filibuster when debating tax and mandatory policy changes. However, the budget resolution typically does not make very many policy recommendations for Congress.

An example of the text of the House budget resolution (FY 2012)
(FY 2013 numbers were unavailable at press time)

The numbers in the budget resolution are important because they are used by the other congressional committees as guides for their fiscal work. The spending levels in the resolution are used as spending limits, while the revenue levels are floors (any bill going over the spending limits or under the floor is subject to challenges in both houses). The appropriations committees use the budget resolution to set spending levels for appropriations bills, the tax writing committees may produce bills to bring revenue into alignment with the budget resolution, and committees with jurisdiction over entitlements make similar adjustments.

The level of detail in the numbers in the two documents is very different. The president's budget contains detailed information on a number of subjects, since it describes explicit policy recommendations. The budget contains past, present, and proposed spending information for every program, including budget authority, outlays, offsetting receipts, unobligated balances, and more. (Each agency also produces a more detailed document called a "congressional justification," which contains even more details about each program and office in the federal government.) In the budget's historical tables, analytical perspectives, and summary tables, one can find everything from government expenditures as a percent of Gross Domestic Product going back to the 1940s, to the amount of federal revenue going back to 1901.

The president's budget also contains many detailed estimates of future spending and revenue. For instance, this year, the president has proposed limiting itemized deductions for wealthy taxpayers, and his budget provides an estimate of how much additional revenue this change will bring in each year for the next ten years.

Since the congressional budget resolution sets top-level fiscal policy only and does not make the same detailed recommendations as the president's budget, the resolution does not contain nearly as detailed information. The few numbers it does provide show overall recommended spending, revenue, and debt levels for the next ten years, with spending broken down only by "functional categories" – the thematic groupings of spending, such as General Science, Health, and Community Development. Other materials released with the budget resolution often provide some context for the numbers, but these are more frequently political talking points than substantive information.

The difference in content makes it difficult to compare the president's budget to a budget resolution. It is only possible to compare the big-picture fiscal policy changes, since the budget resolution only shows top-line numbers. For example, the budget resolution might propose a tax cut, but it typically would not provide detail on the exact tax policies that would change or detailed estimates of the budgetary impact on individual programs. In contrast, the president's budget will provide this information for all tax and spending policy changes.

In the end, both documents are only starting points for legislation. The president's budget is not presented as a bill, and thus is never voted on, although it does provide proposed legislative language for Congress. The budget resolution, similarly, is not signed into law by the president, and has limited binding power. A simple majority of the House or 60 votes in the Senate can override the spending limits provided in the budget resolution. However, the spending limits are only in effect if both houses of Congress pass a concurrent budget resolution, and the Senate is not expected to pass a budget resolution this year. If that happens, the House budget resolution will have little power to set spending limits for the 2013 budget year. Instead, the two parties will fight it out at the end of year on the eve of yet another government shutdown.

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