Skip to main content
obama_budget010
FixGov

Three budget fights to watch

Molly E. Reynolds

The presidential nominating process may be consuming virtually all of the nation’s political attention, but some business is continuing as usual in Washington. President Obama delivered his budget this week, and as Congress attempts to make its way through its own budget process in the coming weeks, here are three fights to watch out for:

1. House Leadership vs. the Freedom Caucus

When Congress passed then-Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) “barn cleaning” budget deal last fall, it relaxed the discretionary spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, permitting an additional $30 billion in discretionary spending, divided evenly across defense and non-defense programs, for fiscal year 2017. After a year in which congressional Democrats refused to even come to the negotiating table unless the caps were raised, the October agreement was supposed to “end the fiscal wars until after the 2016 elections.” The early stages of drafting a budget resolution in the House, however, have not been as peaceful as projected. Some conservative Republicans, including members of the House Freedom Caucus, have indicated that they may be unwilling to support a budget measure that facilitates spending at the increased levels enacted last fall, especially on the non-defense side.

Why is this internal conflict—which Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has downplayed as a “family conversation”—a problem for the Republican leadership? Certainly, it has important symbolic value. The fight over the budget resolution is one that Speaker Ryan can wage against conservatives on his own terms; several of the legislative tests he faced in 2015 involved “half-baked cakes,” set in motion before he led the chamber. In addition, the vote on the budget resolution has become an increasingly party-line affair in the contemporary Congress. The last time a minority party House member voted for the budget resolution was in 2003, and no budget resolution has gotten more than a handful of minority party votes in the House since 1998. Given the current partisan climate, and the sizable deficit reduction that will be necessary for congressional Republicans to produce a budget that gets to balance in ten years, this year isn’t likely to be the one that breaks partisan voting trend. If House Republicans are going to pass a budget resolution, they’re going to need to solve their own intra-party disagreements first.

2. Republican policy priorities vs. other Republican policy priorities

One tool that may prove important for Republicans in resolving the conflict over the overall spending levels is the budget resolution’s reconciliation instructions. These directives kick off the reconciliation process—the optional part of the budget process that, ultimately, involves the consideration of a filibuster-proof measure in the Senate—by instructing particular congressional committees to make changes to the spending and revenue laws for which they are responsible.

House Republican leaders have indicated an interest in using the reconciliation process again this year, and a promise to use the procedures to move legislation popular among conservatives may serve as a “safety valve” in diffusing their objections to the aggregate budget number. In addition, it is possible that reconciliation instructions written this year could be used by the next Congress in early 2017 to move a new Republican president’s legislative priorities quickly. (Whether the Senate parliamentarian would permit this tactic is remains an open question.)

If Republicans do choose to write reconciliation instructions, they will have to choose whether to prioritize some policies over others. After all, reconciliation can only be used for those policies handled by committees included in the instructions. Last year, the House’s initial budget contained wide-ranging instructions, charging every committee with responsibility for eligible mandatory spending programs and providing flexibility to use the process for a wide range of policy initiatives. The final version of the budget resolution passed by both chambers, however, was narrower, naming only three House committees. Indeed, since 2005, reconciliation instructions have been targeted, with only three committees (Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means) included in instructions approved by both chambers. Where will this year’s directives come down? House Budget Committee chairman Tom Price (R-GA) has suggested using the procedures for a welfare reform package—which could be accomplished by naming a relatively small set of committees—but other members could demand a bill that covers more ground.

3. Mitch McConnell vs. the Vote-a-Rama

While House leadership has been struggling with internal divisions over the budget, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been confronting a different dilemma. Bringing a budget resolution to the floor in the Senate guarantees an onslaught of amendments. In 2015, senators proposed 254 amendments on the floor and went on record with roll call votes on 57. We’d likely see similar levels of amending activity in 2016, and it’s a near certainty that some of these amendments would be aimed at embarrassing vulnerable Republican incumbents ahead of November’s elections—exactly the possibility McConnell is on record as wanting to prevent.

Why is the budget resolution such an attractive target for amendments? Under the Congressional Budget Act, “debate” on a budget resolution is limited to 50 hours, which has the effect of preventing a filibuster on the measure. “Debate” is not equivalent to “consideration,” however. As a result, the conclusion of the 50 hours, the Senate may continue to deal with pending amendments—indeed, they cannot move on to voting on final passage until all amendments have been addressed. Knowing that any amendments they propose are likely to get voted on, senators make all manner of proposals. The result is the so-called “vote-a-rama”—which Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) once compared to “the Palace of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost”—where the Senate holds a long series of successive votes, often late into the night. In an era of otherwise diminished opportunities to do so, the value of this protected chance to offer amendments has increased—especially for the very members of the minority party who would most want to embarrass their majority opponents.

A presidential election, a contested Senate majority, and a seven-week long summer recess are a recipe for a year light on congressional accomplishments. Passing some sort of appropriations measures to keep the government running—whether separately or in an omnibus, on a temporary or full-year basis—is one of the few things Congress must get done before the election. Will that process go smoothly? How the congressional parties address these three initial conflicts may be a useful preview of what’s to come between now and November.

Get daily updates from Brookings