Blog: March 26 Update on the Battle to Pass FY 2016 Budget in Congress

Blog: March 26 Update on the Battle to Pass FY 2016 Budget in Congress

Carolyn Burstein
Mar 26, 2015

Wednesday evening, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a budget. The version that ultimately passed by a vote of 228 to 199, had been dubbed “Price 2” after House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA). Seventeen Republicans opposed it along with all Democrats. No bipartisanship there.

In order to achieve passage, Boehner and his top team were forced to use a complicated maneuver called “Queen-of-the-Hill,” but they were successful, unlike nearly all previous attempts this year to gain agreement in the unruly Republican-dominated House. Under “Queen-of-the-Hill,” the House voted on six different budgets and the one with the most votes was declared the winner. “Price 1” had been passed by the House Budget Committee last week; “Price 2” was identical in all respects to “Price 1” except that it increased defense spending by $2 billion. Both versions of the budget were considered the work of Tom Price, although “Price 2” had the blessing of the House leadership.

A third Republican budget, that of the House Republican Study Committee, produced greater deficit reduction than the Price budgets, largely achieved through very deep spending cuts. All three Republican budgets would repeal the Affordable Care Act and produce hundreds of billions in domestic cuts similar to “Price 2.” The winning budget proposal would privatize Medicare for future seniors, turn Medicaid into block grants to the states, and slash other domestic programs that assist the poor and vulnerable people in our society, such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), special education, Pell Grants, job training, nutrition, elderly services and housing assistance – and increase military spending.

Price explained that his plan will lead to gradually smaller deficits and is designed to let the states determine social service levels. The latter purpose has been a common refrain in the party for many years, even though from many other programs we know that such logic leads to greater inequity among the states.

All told, this conservative budget would cut spending by $5.5 billion and eliminate the deficits over the next decade, which the deficit hawks in the party have made their clarion call. The budget resolution also includes “reconciliation” language that orders House committees to draft legislation repealing the Affordable Care Act. The real issue here is that a reconciliation repeal bill cannot be filibustered in the Senate and needs only a majority vote to pass. However, whether the Senate, in conference, would agree to this point is an unknown.

Many Republican lawmakers, according to Politico, just want a reconciliation process with the Senate, so that together they could send an Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal bill to President Obama.

Three Democratic House budget proposals were also considered on Wednesday – those of the House Democratic leadership, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. These three plans all focused on improving growth, investing more funding in domestic programs, which have been starved for funds due especially to sequestration over the past few years, and raising taxes largely by closing current loopholes in tax law. None of these blueprints garnered votes outside the Democratic Party.

Floor Debate on the Budget in the House

During the House floor debate, Republicans vowed to shrink the government’s reach, balance the budget and start paying down the federal deficit – all without raising taxes – positions we are all familiar with. They scarcely mentioned how the severity of their cuts and the policy changes they are proposing would affect poor and even middle-class families. Instead, much of the discussion on the Republican side revealed the split between the defense hawks and the deficit hawks. There was nothing bipartisan about the floor debate

The New York Times clarified on March 26 how discomfited the Democrats were with the tenor of the debate. Speaking for many of his fellow Democrats, Rep. Steny Hoyer (MD), the House’s No. 2 Democrat, accused Republicans of “mercilessly gutting priority investments in education, job training, innovation, research and other priorities of this nation…This budget is a severe disinvestment in America’s future.”

The fact that House defense hawks inserted extra military spending into the Overseas Contingency Fund (OCO), which is reserved for emergencies overseas, ensures that the Defense Department may have more than it wanted in war funding and less than it needs for basic operations. President Obama’s FY 2016 budget, with a defense component nearly as large as that of the Republican budget, ignored the strict caps on military spending set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and added funding to the basic Pentagon budget. Adding funding through the OCO allows the GOP to avoid violating spending caps, although this did not convince the deficit hawks that the deficit was uppermost in the minds of the defense hawks.

Expectations in the Senate Budget

As I am writing this blog, the Senate is debating its own version of the budget, which may continue well into Friday, March 27, a process that has been called a “Vote-A-Rama.” Under this procedure, scores of amendments will be voted on consecutively with merely a two-minute explanation of the content. So far the Senate has voted on several amendments, and none has altered the basic budget written by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (WY). This document is broadly similar to that of the House-passed budget. Many of the unlimited number of amendments that are part of “Vote-A-Rama” are not even budget-related but are politically-oriented and intended to be used aggressively for Senate campaigns.

Politico also reports that the Senate began voting on aspects of the budget on March 24 when they defeated a Democratic proposal on infrastructure improvements over the next six years to be paid by closing corporate loopholes. That same day, Republicans forced a purely political vote on President Obama’s FY 2016 budget that was defeated overwhelmingly, with most Democrats joining in, 1-98. Democrats had previously expressed their preferences for competing bills, e.g., those of the Congressional Progressive Caucus or the Congressional Black Caucus. Of course, this vote was simply symbolic.

A Few Caveats

It is important to note that budget resolutions are non-binding blueprints that neither carry the force of law nor are officially submitted to the executive for approval or veto. They merely set overall spending levels for the coming fiscal year. However, as we see in the Republican Budget that just passed, they often generate binding legislation by including reconciliation instructions. In addition, if the Senate and House are able to reconcile similar yet competing versions of their blueprints, then having a final budget can ease passage of future legislation.

The Associated Press in U.S. News online quotes White House press secretary Josh Earnest as saying that President Obama will reject any budget that locks in deep spending cuts or increases funding for national security without providing matching increases in “economic security” funding. The president has also vowed to defend the healthcare law that is his signature domestic achievement. The House has already voted over 60 times to repeal it in whole or in part. However, now (since November 2014) they have a Senate partner who will back them up.

Problems in the House Republican Budget (FY 2016)

There is much in the FY 2016 Republican budget blueprint to challenge. Responding to the needs of people who have been marginalized and lifting families out of poverty are twin concerns that are nonexistent in the document. Where are the special protections for the most vulnerable Americans?

The overall revenue and expenditure levels do not ensure that 100% within the U.S. can live in dignity; surely not after severe cuts in Medicaid, job training, nutrition, SNAP and the many current domestic programs that will either cease to exist or be gutted to only a semblance of their former selves.

The 100% are not paying their fair share of taxes. The very wealthy are too often excused from the requirement to promote the common good. Moreover, there is no attempt in this budget to create a more equitable and secure society by expanding tax credits to low-income taxpayers. The distribution of resources in this budget does not enable people to help themselves or others. In fact, it is hard to avoid seeing a sinful social structure being erected in the place of a sense of social responsibility. Where are the human rights of the most vulnerable among us enshrined?

The drastic cuts proposed for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid do not meet the affordability and accessibility criteria that have been used by anyone remotely interested in the healthcare field, let alone the most vulnerable among us. And repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without any alternative being proposed defies concern for the 16.4 million Americans who are currently receiving healthcare benefits through the ACA.

No wonder that Catholic advocates like NETWORK, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, along with the Coalition of Human Needs and many others, are pressing Congress to focus more on vulnerable people as they develop their budget plans.

The March 23 issue of Catholic Courier online reminds us of the USCCB letter of Feb. 27 to each member of Congress in which they reiterated that a budget is a moral document and that the needs of poor people are significant. Other individual bishops have written that a budget requires the shared sacrifice of all; that adequate revenues must be raised and unnecessary spending on the military should be eliminated. Most importantly, Congress must address the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.

Sister Richelle Friedman, director of public policy at the Coalition on Human Needs, and Sister Marge Clark, a NETWORK lobbyist, said the needs of poor and vulnerable people were being pushed aside in the budget plans. Sister Richelle called the House budget “morally bankrupt…[R]ather than strengthening America for all who are currently being left behind, if elements of the budget were to become law it would be devastating to those vulnerable people.”

As the appropriations process advances this spring and summer, we must continue to urge Congress to enact or enhance programs that truly lift people out of poverty. And their dignity and human rights should be emphasized in meaningful ways.

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