Revisiting the Budget Control Act Is Inevitable

Posted April 16, 2012 at 5:12pm

This is the week the Budget Act requires Congress to complete action on its budget resolution. However, there is no penalty in law for not doing so (more on that later), and most years Congress has honored the non-enforceable April 15 deadline in its breach.

For the past two years, Congress hasn’t even been late in finalizing a budget resolution because the Senate didn’t take one up. This year may be a repeat nonperformance because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says it’s not necessary. He maintains that last year’s Budget Control Act already provides the Senate with requisite spending and revenue amounts for fiscal 2013 (which is correct) and precludes consideration of any budget resolution — something the newly appointed parliamentarian has disputed in writing.

House Republicans, on the other hand, responding to pressures from a steaming tea pot, voted March 27 to adopt a budget resolution that makes even deeper cuts than the BCA’s spending limits. Consequently, this unfolding drama conjures the precarious image of two parties strutting on separate, nonparallel floating stages, destined to collide in a crash of civil relations.

For Congressional Democrats, the rule of law means abiding by the BCA’s dictates: “A deal’s a deal.”

For House Republicans, the BCA’s lawful aims have already been subverted by Congress’ failure last year to enact a second round of budget cuts of at least $1.2 trillion through the super-dud committee. Therefore, they argue, steeper cuts are needed to restore the BCA’s commitment and avoid sequestration (across-the-board cuts): “Let’s seal the real deal.”

This is not a matter of different statutory interpretations, but rather of differing political approaches. Both are legitimate angles on reality that each party is hoping the American people will resolve in their favor in the fall elections: sharper deficit reductions vs. preservation of vital government services and benefits.

If the Senate proceeds without a budget resolution and the House has one, the differing approaches produce a huge gap: The House budget number is $19 billion below the Budget Control Act’s $1.047 trillion spending lid for fiscal 2013. Reid is hoping to prevail simply by ignoring the House and other resolutions and adhering to the statute’s numbers.

Ordinarily, the spending ceiling allocated to the appropriations committees is derived from the final budget resolution agreed to by both bodies. Absent a final budget resolution this year, the Senate Appropriations Committee will use the BCA spending limit as its Budget Act allocation to be subdivided among its 12 subcommittees (as the BCA allows). The House, on the other hand, will likely deem the discretionary spending number in its budget resolution to be the final budget resolution amount for allocation purposes.

Assuming the appropriations process proceeds with these widely divergent budget numbers, the chambers will be staring across a seemingly unbridgeable abyss in September with little incentive to compromise so close to the fall elections. Even getting a continuing appropriations resolution enacted to carry on government operations into late fall seems problematic. The usual CR formula of using the previous year’s funding levels will be a hard sell with House Republicans because their budget is $15 billion lower than last year’s.

Add to all that an end-of-year expiration of a host of tax cuts, followed in January by a breach of the debt limit and a monumental sequestration of defense and domestic spending (the House budget resolution would cancel sequestration in return for its deeper spending cuts), and you’re looking at a trifecta of downers: a fiscal breakdown, a government shutdown and a financial meltdown.

The sensible approach would be to abort those dangerous scenarios now by adopting budget resolutions in both chambers that will allow for working through differences up front in a House-Senate conference committee, using reconciliation to deal with all the tax, sequester and debt reduction challenges. The BCA does not provide such a fallback process now because the super committee was a one-shot deal, and it misfired. But its unfinished business remains.

The group No Labels has proposed docking every House and Senate Member’s pay for every day after Oct. 1 that Congress has not completed action on a budget resolution and all appropriations bills. I testified in the Senate against their “No Budget, No Pay” proposal as a bad idea because it unnecessarily punishes and demeans the entire institution, thereby further diminishing public respect for Congress (how low can you go?).

There is no question constructive steps must be taken to ensure on-time delivery of all money bills and that impetus must emanate from the top leaders in Congress. But most Members are not directly responsible for the delays in budget bills. Cutting their pay over missed budget deadlines implies not only that all Members are to blame but that they are sitting around doing nothing in the interim. The fact is most Members are still working hard on other legislative matters despite budgetary holdups.

Nevertheless, if Congress blows up this fiscal year by its collective sins of omission, some Members will be punished in one form or another, most likely at the polls.

Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.