Budget Process and Rules
With the budget conference complete, it is now up to each chamber of Congress to pass the FY 2016 concurrent budget resolution. We've already written about the House and Senate budgets in detail, and the final budget resolution aims to find compromise between the two.
As CRFB President Maya MacGuineas said in a press release today:
Congress should be commended for actually having a budget this year and for proposing to put the debt on a sharp downward path relative to the economy. Unfortunately, the budget fails to give lawmakers the tools to accomplish this important goal, and in some areas actually facilitates higher deficits.
Below we take a more detailed look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the final product.
With the House and Senate preparing to go to conference to work out the differences between their budget resolutions, we published a paper Tuesday outlining the various budget process measures contained in the respective resolutions as well as our recommendations about which should be kept. Both budget resolutions contain several items that could help or hurt the process, and we suggest that the conference committee hammer out these differences in line with the recommendations we've made in the Better Budget Process Initiative. We also published a blog and press release containing some recommendations not related to budget process.
Both budgets tackle process reform by enacting provisions to address the lack of accountability, transparency, and long-term focus in current budgeting.
The House and Senate will soon appoint a formal conference committee to iron out differences between their two budgets, even though press reports indicate the Chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees have already started negotiating. In addition to agreeing to the total spending levels (by function) within the budget, a number of important issues must be agreed upon. Specifically, the conferees will have to decide how broadly to write reconciliation instructions, whether to limit use of the OCO designation to spend in excess of statutory caps, how to address potential sequester relief, and whether to include other budget enforcement provisions cracking down on budget gimmicks. This blog summarizes these issues and our views on them.
Provide reconciliation instructions broadly
The House budget included instructions for all committees with mandatory spending to produce legislation achieving at least nominal savings in mandatory programs within their jurisdiction. The Senate only had reconciliation instructions for the Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committees.
Given the very real need to slow the growth of entitlement spending, the budget conference should adopt the House’s approach, providing instructions for every committee with jurisdiction over mandatory programs. Doing so will offer opportunities to enact the mandatory savings assumed in the budget resolution, or at least a smaller set of savings with the potential for broader support.
The House budget also included provision allowing the Chairman of the Budget Committee to publish guidelines to supplement the nominal savings instructions currently included, which could be used to provide guidance for reconciliation legislation with a significant amount of mandatory savings. Our hope is that the budget committee and the relevant committees will work together to produce a reconciliation bill with, at minimum, enough savings to offset the spending increases Congress is likely to approve, including costs associated with the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 and sequester relief. For further reading on reconciliation in the two budgets, see our blog "Reconcila-What?"
We have described at length the fiscal irresponsibility of the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) reform bill (H.R. 2) working its way through Congress -- both its significant near-term and long-term costs and its exemption of the cost of the bill from pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules. But the PAYGO exemption is not the only way the bill violates budget rules intended to enforce fiscal discipline.
The bill also runs afoul of several points of order (POOs) under the Congressional Budget Act and Senate rules that will require 60 votes to override. The most significant budget points of order that apply to H.R. 2 as passed by the House are:
- Senate PAYGO Point of Order: The Senate provides a point of order against bills that increase deficits over the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) ten-year budget window. This rule is distinct from the statutory PAYGO rule that would automatically recoup costs that are not offset with a sequester if the bill was not exempted. By contrast, this point of order prohibits consideration of legislation that would increase the deficit unless 60 Senators vote to waive the prohibition.
- Senate Long-Term Deficit Point of Order: Although some advocates of H.R. 2 have suggested that the legislation would be fully offset or even reduce the deficit beyond the ten year window, CBO wrote in its estimate of H.R. 2 that “Taken as a whole, H.R. 2 would raise federal costs (that is, increase budget deficits) relative to current law in the second decade after enactment.” As a result, the bill would be subject to the Senate’s long-term deficit point of order, which prohibits legislation increasing deficits by more than $5 billion in any of the following four decades beyond the ten-year budget window.
The Senate budget by Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) contains an important provision to limit a gimmick often used to increase spending using phony savings from CHIMPs, which stands for Changes In Mandatory Programs. While we have written extensively about the abuse of the Overseas Contingency Operations account to allow for defense spending above the caps established by the Budget Control Act, Congress has also relied on CHIMPs to provide non-defense discretionary spending above spending limits. CHIMPs are scored as savings on paper despite often producing no real savings, but are still used to pay for real increases in spending.
What are CHIMPs?
CHIMPs are provisions in appropriation bills making changes in mandatory spending programs, usually to reduce or limit mandatory spending. The savings are then available to be used to offset an increase in discretionary spending. This can be perfectly acceptable when the savings created are real, but it does create the opportunity to game the system.
Now that the Senate and House have passed their respective budget resolutions, a budget conference committee is right around the corner. One aspect of the competing resolutions that will have to be dealt with are provisions related to the budget process. Both budgets include provisions to address issues with the budget process that our Better Budget Process Initiative (BBPI) has identified. While we have previously written on both budgets' treatments of reconciliation instructions, below we’ll go further and highlight some of the other budget process provisions.
The House’s resolution embraces both the dynamic scoring rules put into place at the start of the 114th Congress as well as the rules prohibiting a general fund transfer from the Social Security Old Age and Survivors' Insurance (OASI) trust fund to the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund that does not also improve overall solvency. In addition, the House’s budget scores general fund transfers to the Highway Trust Fund as new spending. This is significant given the impending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund on May 31, one of the upcoming fiscal speed bumps.
We have advocated that the budget process should better focus on the long term. The House budget partially addresses this by including a long-term spending point of order.
The House budget also adds rules regarding so called fair-value estimates of government credit programs. Specifically it provides for supplemental analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) at the request of the Chair or Ranking Member of the Budget Committee. Further, it allows the Chair of the Budget Committee to use this supplemental estimate as the official score for budget enforcement.
Although the numbers in the budget resolution draw a lot of attention, one of the most impactful parts of the resolution deals with budget process, setting up the parameters for legislation later in the year. A key part of this process is reconciliation instructions, which help turn the assumptions in the resolution into reality. Additionally, it provides a bill prepared by a committee filibuster-proof consideration on the floor. This legislation would need to be signed by the President and have the force of law, while the budget resolution does not. Both the Senate and House Budgets provide reconciliation instructions, starting this potentially powerful legislative process.
But what are reconciliation instructions?
Reconciliation instructions are directions to a committee to report legislation that changes existing law to bring spending, revenues, or the debt limit in line with the budget resolution. Reconciliation specifies the committee or committees, the nominal dollar savings needed, and sometimes a deadline for legislation to be reported. A reconciliation bill that comes to the floor cannot be filibustered in the Senate – meaning it does not need 60 votes – and has a 20-hour debate clock in both chambers (unless waived by rule or unanimous consent). Reconciliation's special privileges are important because they are intended to ease the passage of politically difficult (usually) deficit reduction legislation.
The federal government will reach its second Fiscal Speed Bump today, as the debt ceiling will be reinstated after having been suspended since last February. The Treasury Department will be able to push back the actual day of reckoning until the fall with "extraordinary measures," but lawmakers will have to lift it later this year to avoid a default on the debt. At times, raising the debt ceiling has involved unnecessary brinkmanship, but it has often been used as a catalyst to make important fiscal reforms. To further the latter and minimize the former, the Better Budget Process Initiative has proposed ten options to change the debt ceiling to make it a more effective tool for fiscal responsibility while improving financial stability in a new paper entitled "Improving the Debt Limit".
The paper divides the changes into four broad categories: linking debt limit changes to achieving fiscal targets, incorporating the debt limit into Congress's decision making, applying the debt limit to more meaningful measures, and replacing the debt limit with a limit on future obligations. The ten options are below:
Link changes in the debt limit to achieving responsible fiscal targets
1) Presidential authority to increase the debt limit if fiscal targets are met
2) Presidential authority to increase the debt limit if accompanied by a plan to put debt on a declining path as a share of GDP
3) Suspend the debt limit automatically if fiscal targets are met
The budget process focuses on the short term, often at the expense of longer-term considerations (like how our long-term debt problem is far from being solved). This distortion allows policies to be crafted in ways that mask their true costs and contributes to results that downplay looming fiscal challenges.
The short-term focus contributes to many poor outcomes, such as emphasis on short-term deficit reduction (with little improvement in the long-term fiscal outlook), the use of “timing gimmicks” designed to obscure the budgetary impact of policy choices, and the reliance on one-time savings to ensure “deficit-neutrality” within the budget window but deficit increases beyond it. It also often causes policymakers to undervalue policies which achieve modest savings over the ten-year window but much greater savings after that to help "bend the debt curve" over the long term. (For more on looking beyond the ten-year window, see our prior paper on the subject)
In addition, the short-term focus has made it conducive for many in Washington to brag that the fiscal situation is under control based on a short-term improvement in the deficit, despite the fact that the debt is projected to grow faster than the economy for the medium and long term.