Sometimes it’s hard to believe House and Senate budget resolutions had the same birth parents back in 1974. They are different in so many ways: They look different, act different, and, yes, even weigh different (more on that later).
If you’ve been away from them for several years and only occasionally read about what they’ve been up to, you nod knowingly and sigh, “Oh, those budget kids will be kids.” You might be somewhat concerned that one of them, the Senate budget kid, has been missing in action four of the past five years. But then, lots of families have prodigal sons, and you figured he’d be back some day. And indeed, this year did seem to be a new day with both kids showing up on time for the family’s spring reunion.
This year Congress is expected to adopt a final budget resolution for the first time since 2009. This revival gives cause to reflect on how the process has evolved from its inception 40 years ago. The original plan enshrined in the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 seemed simple enough. House and Senate budget committees were created to develop and adopt a congressional budget each year in a concurrent resolution (not subject to presidential approval). It would include aggregate levels for spending, revenues, deficit and debt.
The final conference agreement would specify overall allocations of spending to the relevant committees, including the appropriations committees that would sub-allocate their overall pot to their 13 (now 12) subcommittees. Moreover, the conference report could include reconciliation instructions directing tax and entitlement committees to produce additional changes in permanent law to bring the bottom lines into line.
Although the two chambers were presumably working from the same process pages of the Budget Act, they soon went their separate ways. The House quickly realized budgets are political documents and the process became partisan. Competing majority and minority party budget plans would emerge from the House Budget Committee, and only broad substitute amendments, sponsored by various factions within the two parties, were allowed on the floor.
The Senate, on the other hand, was more inclined to develop and report bipartisan, consensus budgets through most of the 1980s, coupled with an open floor amendment process. As deficits mounted, however, and Congress became more polarized, the Senate witnessed more partisan budget votes while still protecting the rights and prerogatives of individual senators.
When Congress became preoccupied with ballooning budget deficits in the 1980s (a deficit obsession disorder?), it enacted major, bipartisan Budget Act reforms in 1985 and 1990 that transformed the process from deficit-neutral to deficit-centric. Both laws incorporated a fallback sequestration mechanism (automatic, across-the-board spending cuts) if Congress did not produce specified savings on its own.
Congress is currently living under a third sequestration iteration imposed by the Budget Control Act. This time sequestration was triggered when a joint House-Senate supercommittee in 2011 failed to report an alternative deficit reduction plan. Consequently, Congress is saddled with a sequester order extending from fiscal years 2013 to 2021.
Today’s budget resolutions reflect the angst induced by sequestration. While the tension is playing out in real terms over defense versus non-defense spending, it is also manifesting itself in the form of non-binding policy statements and reserve funds inserted in both budget resolutions. The House budget resolution was 142 pages long when reported from committee and the same length when it passed the House. The Senate resolution grew from 116 pages when reported to 228 pages after a five-day floor amend-a-thon in which 254 amendments were proposed, 148 adopted, and 58 roll call votes were taken.
The bulk of amendments adopted by the Senate were sense-of-Congress expressions to empathetically address specific micro-needs by establishing “deficit neutral reserve funds” — procedural prophylactics with unspecified offsets to be named at a later date. They totaled 99 in the committee-reported resolution and 162 in the final. Obviously, this cuts against the macro-fiscal course budget resolutions were intended to chart, and is why the House moved in the early 1980s to allow only total substitutes on the floor instead of discreet amendments.
Notwithstanding the two chambers’ disparate ways of cobbling together their respective budget resolutions in committee and on the floor, they will likely report a compromise (albeit, a partisan GOP budget) from conference committee this week. That, in turn, will allow the other relevant committees to move forward on their pieces of the budget. It is a welcome development after five years of budgetary gridlock.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.