How Will Congress Handle the Most Predictable Crisis in Our History?

By Smith, Ron | Policy & Practice, June 2011 | Go to article overview

How Will Congress Handle the Most Predictable Crisis in Our History?


Smith, Ron, Policy & Practice


The first session of the 112th Congress has been defined by a series of fights over federal spending. It is sometimes difficult to fully comprehend what the debate is about because the process by which Congress finally determines levels of spending and revenues consist of a complex series of individual components played out in several stages.

Stage One--the adoption of a continuing resolution to fund domestic discretionary spending for the remainder of the fiscal year--was concluded in April when a final continuing resolution was signed into law that reduced federal spending by $38 billion for FY 2011. Stage Two--raising the federal debt limit--this promises to be a highly contentious fight that will take place in late May and into June. Republicans have indicated they will insist major budgetary controls be added to the bill before they will support it. Stage Three, and perhaps the most critical stage--adopting a Congressional Budget Resolution for FY 2012. And Stage Four, the last stage, which will be played out this fall--enacting FY 2012 appropriation bills.

Of all these stages, the one that has the most far-reaching consequences, and may be the least understood, is the budget resolution that Congress is currently debating. It is through this budget resolution that Congress will establish the roadmap of how it will deal with reforming entitlement pro grams, limits on appropriations and tax reform.

The parameters by which Congress considers tax and spending legislation are predetermined by a set of specific procedures delineated in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974 as amended. The centerpiece of the Budget Act is the Congressional Budget Resolution. In theory, Congress adopts a budget resolution annually, though often this has proved to be politically impossible. The budget resolution sets aggregate limits on expenditures and targets for federal revenue. These limits apply to all relevant legislation as well as to any amendments offered on the House or Senate floor.

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The budget resolution is a "concur rent" congressional resolution and therefore does not go to the president for his approval or disapproval. Once the House and Senate have passed their version of the resolution, a conference committee is appointed to resolve differences and produce a compromise version, which is then submitted to both chambers for final approval. It also requires only a majority vote to pass in both the House and Senate, and thus is not subject to a Senate filibuster.

It is at this point in the legislative process--the conference committee's debate over the House and Senate versions of the budget resolution--where diametrically different viewpoints will have to find common ground.

On April 13, President Obama outlined his plan for addressing the raising national debt. …

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