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Understanding the Current Budget Battles -- A Glossary

Federal Budget GLOSSARY

Appropriations Bill: An appropriations bill provides money for discretionary programs, and specifies how much money can be spent on a given program. Reviewed by the corresponding subcommittees of the Appropriations committees in both the House and Senate, appropriations bills must also be approved by the full House and Senate before being signed by the President.

Authorization Bill: An authorization bill gives a government agency the legal authority to fund and operate its programs, sets maximum funding levels, and includes policy guidelines. The bill must be adopted by the full House and Senate before being signed by the President. Government programs can be authorized on an annual, multi-year, or permanent basis. Specific amounts authorized are ceilings on the amounts that subsequently may be appropriated in an appropriations bill, but not as minimums; either the House or Senate may recommend appropriating lower amounts or nothing at all.

Budget resolution: A resolution passed by each chamber of Congress that serves as a framework for budget decisions. It sets overall spending limits but does not decide funding for specific programs.  Only the overall spending limit is mandated.

"Bush tax cuts": The “Bush tax cuts” refer to changes to the U.S. tax code passed during the presidency of George W. Bush that generally lowered tax rates and revised the nation’s taxation code. The Bush tax cuts were set to expire in 2010, but were renewed for 2 years as part of a larger tax and economic package (1). Because the tax cuts were in place for so many years, they began to feel permanent rather than temporary, and taxpayers and politicians raised a major outcry as their expiration date approached. Those who wanted to let the tax cuts expire as scheduled argued that the government needed the extra tax revenue in the face of its massive budget deficits. Those who wanted to extend the tax cuts or make them permanent argued that because taxes reduce economic growth and stifle entrepreneurship and incentives to work, effectively increasing taxes during a recession was a bad idea.

CBPP’s chart shows that the Bush-era tax cuts and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars account for almost half of the projected public debt in 2019 (measured as a share of the economy) if we continue current policies.

Continuing Resolution (CR): Legislation that permits a government agency to continue to operate at existing funding levels if a new appropriations bill to fund its operations has not been adopted by the start of the fiscal year (October 1st).

Debt: Accumulated total of annual deficits and surpluses over the years.

Deficit: When spending exceeds revenues in a given year.

Discretionary Funding: Funding for "discretionary" or "appropriated" programs fall under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Discretionary programs must have their funding renewed each year in order to continue operating. Almost all defense spending is discretionary, as are the budgets for K-12 education, health research, and housing, to name just a few examples. Altogether, discretionary programs make up about one-third of all federal spending.

Discretionary funding for human needs has already been cut by $1 trillion dollars, since last August (2011). 

Mandatory funding:  "Mandatory" programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and certain other programs (including but not limited to food stamps, federal civilian and military retirement benefits, veterans' disability benefits, and unemployment insurance) are not controlled by annual appropriations. Anyone who applies for benefits and meets the eligibility requirements for that specific program is “entitled” to the benefits. Spending levels can fluctuate up or down depending on the number of people eligible for payment under these programs. Mandatory spending accounts for roughly two-thirds of the federal budget.

Reconciliation: Reconciliation is a process whereby legislators from the House and Senate meet and work out a compromise bill, which must then be approved by both the House and the Senate.

This year, in response to the Budget Control Act, sequestration was put in place to not go into effect until January 2013.  To trigger the reconciliation process, the House budget committee instructed six committees to produce legislation by a certain date that meets the mandatory spending cuts or tax targets.

The House-passed Budget Resolution instructed 6 different House committees to come up with savings of more than $331 billion over ten years, or, when overlap among the committees is taken into account, net savings of $261.5 billion. A portion of these cuts would replace some of the reductions scheduled to start in January 2013. The committees were given April 27 as the deadline for meeting the targets set in the House Budget Resolution. Each committee has specified at least the minimum amount of cuts they were tasked to find. Their proposals have been packaged together into the Sequester Replacement Act of 2012 (H.R. 4966). This legislation is likely to pass in the House; and unlikely to be brought to the floor in the Senate, as this bill violates the values of the majority of Senate members. (Click here for more information.)

When a reconciliation bill does go to the Senate, it has “protections” which allow passage in a limited time period, and with the support of only 51 Senators, dis-allowing a 60 vote mandate and not allowing amendments. The reconciliation process is only applied in order to produce savings.

Elements of the House reconciliation bill are likely to be picked up as we approach the end of the rush to complete “must-pass” legislation, and used as possible “pay-fors” for programs that the House and the Senate both want to protect. 

Sequester:  “The sequester” is an automatic across-the-board proportional spending cut that is scheduled to occur because the government has failed to achieve a set of pre-determined goals at the end of 2011. In the current context, sequestration refers to the set of automatic across-the-board cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that will go into effect in January of 2013. Under the formula that the Budget Control Act specifies, defense programs would be cut by a total of $54.7 billion each year from 2013 through 2021, with non-defense programs cut by the same amount. Together, these program cuts total $109.3 billion per year, or $984 billion through 2021.  Although this is less than the $1.2 target specified for the Joint Committee, the savings in interest payments that the sequestration would produce (which is estimated at $216 billion using a ratio specified in the legislation) would count toward the $1.2 trillion target.(2)

Surtax/ Buffet Rule: On April 16th, 2012, the Senate fell short of the 60 votes needed to move forward on the “Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012” (S. 2230).  Also known as the Buffett Rule, S. 2230 would require millionaires and billionaires to pay a minimum of 30% of their income in taxes, with the higher rates phased in beginning at the $1 million level. Senators voted 51-45 to limit debate on calling up the bill, but 60 votes were needed to succeed in moving to consideration of S. 2230.  This could be brought up again.

Tax expenditures: This term refers to income exemptions or deductions that reduce the tax collections that would be made after applying a particular tax rate.

(1) Tax Policy Center

(2) CBPP