August 28, 2014

Congressional Leaders Make it Official: No Budget Resolution for FY 2011

Last week congressional leaders confirmed what many have long suspected: Congress will not meet its obligation to pass a budget resolution for FY 2011. At a public forum, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said "It isn’t possible to debate and pass a realistic, long-term budget until we’ve considered the bipartisan commission’s deficit-reduction plan, which is expected in December." According to Hoyer, Congress will instead consider a resolution which could include allocations to the Appropriations Committees that are below the President's request, adjustments to the PAYGO rule, instructions to committees to identify waste, language supporting the goals of the President's fiscal commission, and a commitment to vote on the commission's recommendations.

For many years, similar procedural measures have been referred to as "deeming resolutions." As we have written before, deeming resolutions are procedural shortcuts Congress resorts to when it has been unable to pass a budget resolution. Deeming resolutions have been primarily used to move appropriations bills forward by establishing allocations that guide the process. They have also been used for other purposes such as making adjustments to points of order. According to the Congressional Research Service, however, a “deeming resolution” is not officially defined and there is no specific statute or rule governing their form and content.

In recent days, some in Congress have creatively renamed the deeming resolution "a budget enforcement resolution" and argued that it is "the functional equivalent of the budget resolution." While the term may sound official, "budget enforcement resolution" does not appear anywhere in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, the Congressional Research Service's summary of the budget process, or in the Government Accountability Office's "Glossary of Terms Used in the Federal Budget Process." Inventing a new term to describe a measure that bears a striking resemblance to a deeming resolution is a rebranding attempt unworthy of an episode of Mad Men, let alone the United States Congress.

Whatever it is called, the resolution Hoyer described is not a budget resolution or equivalent to one. Section 301 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires a budget resolution to include at least the following levels for a period of at least five fiscal years: totals of new budget authority and outlays, total federal revenues, the surplus or deficit in the budget, new budget authority and outlays for each of the major functional categories, the public debt, and outlays/ revenues for the Social Security program. If the resolution Congress considers does not include these items, it is not a budget resolution.

It is also troubling that the work of the President's bipartisan fiscal commission is being used as a convenient excuse for not passing a budget resolution. Putting aside the fact that it is unclear whether the required 14 out of 18 members of the commission will even be able to reach consensus on a plan, the commission was not created to do the work of the House and Senate Budget Committees. As The Concord Coalition and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad have argued, the primary focus of the commission should be finding long-term solutions to the nation's unsustainable fiscal outlook and not addressing issues that are typically dealt with in the Congressional budget resolution. The commission's medium-term goal of balancing the budget (excluding interest payments on the debt) by 2015 will require some overlap with the congressional budget process, but the solution is not to cast aside the budget resolution. It is to adopt the Senate Budget Committee's approach of reporting a real budget resolution with enforcement mechanisms to accommodate the commission's work. In the meantime, if congressional leaders insist on delaying a budget resolution until the commission acts, perhaps they should also delay action on spending and revenue legislation that will add to the deficit.

It is commendable that the deeming resolution may include a discretionary spending limit below the President's request and language supporting the goals of the President's fiscal commission. However, in a fiscal environment in which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is forecasting baseline deficits totaling $6 trillion over ten years (excluding the cost of extending expiring tax provisions) and $9.8 trillion in the President’s budget, this is not enough. Our nation faces serious fiscal challenges that require more than a deeming resolution, regardless of how creatively it is named. A deeming resolution will not establish an effective framework to guide Congress as it considers spending and revenue legislation. It also can not be used for reconciliation instructions that may be needed for deficit reduction and compliance with the new PAYGO law.

With annual deficits that are over a trillion dollars, this is no time for Congress to decide to skip the budget resolution. As The Concord Coalition has argued for several months, the fiscal challenges facing our nation require a real budget resolution that will set fiscally responsible revenue, spending, and deficit reduction targets and include the credible budget enforcement mechanisms needed to meet themIt is true that this will require making difficult and politically unpopular decisions, but that is what it means to govern.