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Budget Battles Brew in Congress

by Countable | 11.8.18

With Democrats set to control the House and Republicans the Senate when the 116th Congress convenes in January, the budgeting process will be the battleground for many of the ideological disputes that play out in the divided legislature.

Absent a major agreement on an issue like tax or welfare reform, each chamber will likely pass budget resolutions outlining their party’s policy priorities and may include reconciliation instructions to achieve them, which was the process used to enact the GOP tax cuts and Obamacare.

While those ideological budget blueprints are unlikely to gain much traction in the next Congress, if either party were to claim control of both chambers and the White House in 2020 they could serve as a preview of the next big battle over healthcare or taxes.

What is budget reconciliation?

Budget reconciliation is a process that allows Congress to expedite the consideration of tax, entitlement spending reform, and debt limit bills that can be passed with a simple majority in both chambers. It starts with the passage of a budget resolution that contains instructions for committees to produce bills that achieve targets laid out in the resolution (eg reducing the deficit by a given amount over 10 years), which are then combined by the Budget Committee into a single bill.

Reconciliation bills have to comply with the “Byrd rule”, named for former-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), which prohibit the inclusion of provisions that:

  • Are extraneous based on the determination of the Senate Parliamentarian and the presiding officer.
  • Modify Social Security.
  • Increase deficits outside of the budget window, which is usually 10 years but can be any duration longer than the minimum of 5 years.

Provisions violating the Byrd rule can be included if 60 senators vote to waive it, but absent that a reconciliation bill must be given a “Byrd bath” to cleanse it of violations. (Removed provisions are known as “Byrd droppings”.)

Once a reconciliation bill reaches the Senate floor debate is limited to 20 hours, unless it’s a conference report containing a compromise between House and Senate versions of the bill, in which case debate is limited to 10 hours for both chambers. A simple majority vote in each chamber is all that’s required to pass a reconciliation bill.

What about reconciliation in the current Congress?

So far in the 115th Congress, reconciliation was used to bring up the GOP healthcare reform bill that passed the House but stalled in the Senate, in addition to the more successful Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which ultimately became law.

Congress hasn’t approved a budget resolution for the current fiscal year (FY2019), which it would have to do to use reconciliation in the lame duck session ― a task that, while possible, would be extremely difficult given the limited time left in the legislative year.

But that hasn’t stopped sitting members from proposing bills to take further advantage of the reconciliation process and to curtail its use.

Rep. Bradley Byrne’s (R-AL) 50 Votes for the Wall Act would allow the budget reconciliation process to be used to create a $25 billion Border Wall and Security Trust Fund, thus allowing one of President Trump’s priorities to be fully funded with a simple majority. The enactment of a FY2019 budget resolution with relevant reconciliation instructions would have to occur before it could enjoy the benefits of reconciliation.

Sen. Mazie Hirono’s (D-HI) Medicare and Medicaid Protection Act would prevent the budget reconciliation process from being used to raise the Medicare eligibility age, privatize Medicare or turn it into a voucher system, block grant Medicaid or impose per-capita spending caps on state plans, or to reduce the ability of states to provide health coverage under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Such changes would require 60 votes, much like changes to Social Security under the current reconciliation rules.

Tell your reps what you think about the budget reconciliation process and share your thoughts below!

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: Architect of the Capitol via Flickr / Creative Commons)


Written by Countable

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