Monday, March 30, 2009

FSCA Legislative Update

Budget and Appropriations

Last week, both the House and Senate got down to the business of responding to President Obama's proposed budget for FY 2010. It is a document that not only reflects his spending priorities for all federal agencies but also provides a roadmap for his legislative agenda for the year. It is an ambitious plan on both the spending (discretionary and mandatory) and revenue (tax) sides of the budget equation. It is also a plan that lacks specifics. The administration has told the House and Senate that detailed spending recommendations for all federal agencies will not be prepared or distributed to Congress until mid-May. Regardless, the House and Senate Budget Committees hosted mark-ups of the FY 2010 Budget Resolutions this week.

Budget consideration was contentious on both sides of the Capitol due to the massive new spending; an overall increase of 12 percent for domestic programs; the significant changes in the tax code affecting primarily businesses and high-income earners; proposals to create new entitlements (Pell Grants, Home Visiting Programs) and eliminate longstanding mandatory investments, such as the federal student loan program; and reform of both energy policy and the health care system. It also set off a major national lobbying effort from the president, who is anxious to win congressional endorsement of these initiatives.

The outcome in both of the budget committees, not surprisingly, was partisan. Both Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), House Budget Committee chairman, and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Senate Budget Committee chairman, modified the president's plan in light of new information about deficits and national debt, reducing the overall increase in domestic spending in FY 2010 to 6 percent. The reduction was not nearly enough to satisfy Republicans such as Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), ranking Budget Committee members. Both voiced great concern about the building economic and financial crisis we are creating for future generations by overspending on programs that should be capped and overtaxing those individuals and entities that could otherwise generate recovery. The debate revealed divisions that are wide and deep about the appropriate role of government to address the current crisis. The budget resolutions drafted by the respective chairman were adopted on strictly party line votes.

One unresolved budget issue is whether or not a process called "reconciliation" will be used to develop and adopt some of the more controversial and thorny policy proposals Obama is anxious to address in the next six months. The House Budget Resolution includes reconciliation instructions. The Senate Budget Resolution does not. The underlying issue is all about vote counts. If reconciliation is allowed and a package or reconciliation policy proposal is put together, a mere 51 votes wins the day in the Senate. In the House, given its stronger majority, passage of such a measure is not as worrisome. Without the relative safety of being deemed a "reconciliation" measure, these proposals would surely be filibustered in the Senate, requiring 60 votes for anything to be agreed upon. Reconciliation also severely limits the time for debate and gives the parliamentarian great authority to make decisions related to germaneness because of something known as the "Byrd Rule." The real issue here is whether or not the House of Representatives will succeed in dictating Senate procedure. The end result is anybody's guess at this point. Both budget resolutions will be the focus of floor activity this week.

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