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Headline in this morning’s Washington Post: “In a Slog Forward, Congress Passes Budget.”
I’ll leave it to others to parse what a slog forward is, but rest assured Congress has not passed a budget.
Congressional Republicans, with no support from Democrats, have approved a budget resolution. But that document is merely a non-binding fiscal framework, and is far from a detailed description of how the government will raise and spend money next year.
How much will the Department of Health and Human Services spend on Meals on Wheels in 2016? Don’t bother looking for the answer in the budget resolution. It is not there. In fact, the resolution doesn’t even say how much the entire Department of HHS will have in 2016. It only instructs Congress to spend $430.9 billion next year for programs that come under the category of Health.
Think of it this way: You want to build a beautiful new sailboat. Your first step is to ask an architect to draft a set of blueprints. Eventually, you’ll turn those plans into a keel, masts, and a deck, and fit your vessel out with sails, steering, and a cabin. Then, you’ll have a boat. But for now, all you have are plans. Put them in the water and all you’ll have are soggy blueprints.
The gritty work of building the actual vessel--filling in the all-important details--now goes to congressional committees. While the budget resolution lays out a decade-long fiscal plan, only the first year matters to these panels. They have only one real job: To make sure their 2016 spending bills obey the budget instructions.
And that won’t be easy. For much of the domestic budget, those panels have been asked to cut 2016 spending below 2015 levels. That’s because this budget would restore the discretionary spending caps that were first set under the 2013 sequester but temporarily suspended.
Congressional Republicans did not need Democrats to adopt their budget framework, which requires only a majority to pass the Senate rather than the now-routine 60 votes. And because it is only a resolution, the measure does not need the president’s signature. Thus it was relatively easy for the GOP to get internal agreement on broad spending numbers.
But when the fiscal outline is turned into specific spending bills, Republicans will need Democratic support, at least in the Senate. They’ll also need the backing of a half-dozen GOP senators who face tough 2016 reelection battles in blue states. And eventually President Obama will need to sign on. This very different environment is why many on Capitol Hill think lawmakers will have to negotiate new spending targets before passing a final fiscal plan next fall.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) has no illusions about how hard this will be. It is one thing to vote for a blueprint that allows for $3.871 trillion in spending in 2016. Few voters can predict what that means for their daily lives. It is quite another to cut a few million dollars from Meals on Wheels. Voters will have no trouble understanding what that means. Check back in about five months to see what the real budget looks like.
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