Budget Counsel Reference


Reference Source
for the
Congressional Budget Process


Welcome to the Budget Counsel Reference website. The intent and design here is to facilitate greater comprehension of Congressional budget law. Of the many responsibilities of the U.S. Congress, perhaps the most essential is its power over the resources of the United States. The law governing the budget process is not a matter of accounting, but the essence of a republican form of government. 

A Compendium of the Laws

For those who like actual books, a compendium of the budget laws can be obtained here:

A Compendium of the Budget Laws Annotated (116th Congress)

Bill of Note: H.R. 3877 (116th Congress) – Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019
Notes from beyond the wall
August 15, 2019

To round things out, and show how yesterdays news is today’s important bulletin here at the BCR: The BBA 2019 now has a number from the Statutes At Large. It’s full name, according to the Popular Name Tool from the Office of Revision Counsel, the venerable office in charge with turning our laws into the U.S. code, shows it as follows:

Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019
Pub. L. 116-37, Aug. 2, 2019, 133 Stat. 1049
Short title, see 2 U.S.C. 900 note

Enacted law take longer to be posted to the Statutes at Large, whereas amendments to the U.S. Code are executed by Law Revision Counsel very quickly. Since the Statutes are not updated as they are amended by subsequent laws, the need for immediate turnaround is less. Whenever looking something up in the Statutes, it must be further researched to be sure that some subsequent law has not changed it. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 is a case in point: When reviewing Pub. L. 93-344, as enacted, the differences from current law are substantial. Comparing the two can be very helpful in understanding how the law has evolved over the decades, and hence why the CBA is posted in both “as enacted” and “current” form.

August 6, 2019

The public law number has now been assigned, always a thrilling time: The last of the budget deals stemming from the Budget Control Act of 2011 (Pub. L. 112-25), and the last of the descendants (maybe) of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (Pub. L. 113-69) can be identified with a little more clarity: It is the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (Pub. L. 116-37). Perhaps this is a little overwrought for a simple administrative box checking, but the budget law of late has brought very few things to sing about. We still have the assignment of its Statute-At-Large number to look forward to as well, so more fun is to come.

Unfortunately, this is the latest of the budget deals that has no written Congressional report, and all that such a document entails. The BBA 2013 has a Committee Print, produced by the House Budget Committee (produced by the wearying insistence of the Chief Counsel at the time), and the BBA 2015 has a  House Counsel Report, done as a project by the same Chief Counsel of the House Budget Committee, having no official status, but with some helpful material.

August 2, 2019

The Speaker held an “enrollment ceremony” for the H.R. 3877 (116th Congress) on August 1, 2019. This prompted a question. What exactly is an “enrollment ceremony”?  Turns out they happen periodically, and apparently began in 1999. They even had one for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act back in December 2017.  The bill, which will formally become a law with the short title of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019,  will be signed into law, and receive a public law number (and go into effect, of course). 

Speaker Pelosi gave a statement for the occasion, which was unfortunate insofar as it continued using the rhetoric of the evils of sequestration. Her assertion that the BBA 2019 “ends the destructive nature of sequestration” is this side of absurd. It did not extend the spending limits, which was unfortunate. In other media reports, similarly inaccurate statements show up: 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pointed out that agreement ended the automatic “sequester” created by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which mandated $125 billion in automatic spending cuts this year without congressional action. (Politico, August 1, 2019)

Shortly after the Budget Control Act of 2011 (Pub. L. 112-25) went into force and people realized that upon the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction’s (the “Super Committee”) failure would cause automatic reductions in spending, it was somehow decided that “sequestration” would become an all purpose Freddie Krueger without the winning personality. The problem is that it is not that, it is a tool and has been around for thirty-five years. It was also fundamentally misrepresented: Invariably the “sequestration” described by these voices was simply the revised spending limits set for future years. Sequestration, properly understood, is backward looking. It cuts spending in the present to get it back to the limit that was set in the past. While this all seems very Marty McFly, it makes a difference for budget tech types.   

More substantively, the BBA 2019 did not “end sequestration”, it allowed the spending limits, which had been revised after the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed in its task to produce a bill that could be enacted and achieve a deficit reduced by $1.5 trillion over ten years. This caused a sequestration in fiscal year 2013 in discretionary programs, but after that it simply meant lower discretionary spending limits (lower “caps”). The real sequestration occurred on the “direct spending” side (i.e. entitlements), and section 402 of the BBA 2019 actually extends that through fiscal year 2029.

This is not meant to bash Democrats, since Republicans mangled the references to “sequestration”, though probably not quite as much, and maybe not in such apocalyptic terms, but that is mostly a matter of rhetorical style rather than policy distinctions.

July 31, 2019

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 is nothing if not an exercise in nostalgia, insofar as it allows reminiscence of legislation past. When the spending limits were put in place in 2011, ten years was far longer than prior years. The conventional wisdom was that spending limits could only be sustained for three years at a maximum. One House Budget Committee staff director knew absolutely nothing about budget process but could repeat that tidbit of wisdom with tiresome regularity. Hence the pressure to raise the spending limits did not come as much of a surprise. This past increase, perhaps, could be viewed as a little surprising at how far the limits were blown up.

That aside, the history of the past eight years or so is reviewed here: The Budget Control Act and Its Progeny. It does not delve too far into the details, but maybe later, additions are easy when not even erasers are need: only clicks and taps.

Another note: If one reads over the text of section 251(c) (BBEDCA), one sees immediately that the discretionary spending limits are divided into two separate caps, or “categories” to be more precise: The “revised security” and “revised nonsecurity”. These terms are helpfully defined in section 250(c) (BBEDCA). For purposes of the discretionary spending limits, this section has five different definitions, even though only the two just mentioned are used in law. The other three are “security category”, “nonsecurity catgory” and “discretionary category”.



Preview Report BBA 2019 Preview Report BBA 2019
Defense $576.175 billion $666.5 billion $644.0 billion $671.5 billion
Non-Defense $543.193 billion $621.5 billion $590. billion $626.5 billion

July 30, 2019

No law is perfect. This bill needs to be improved. The bill needs more work before it is ready to be considered. All those are very often said, and in some circumstances, all to the good and need to be said. Very often they are just nonsense phrases, as is the case with much political speech, that means in reality: “I don’t like this bill and won’t vote for it until it is changed.” The “improvements” or “work” or “perfect” are just code words for “yuck”. Since the latter is not a statutorily defined word, it is rarely used in drafting.

While the preceding is pretty much a waste of time and space, the following is not: The BBA 2019 could have been “improved” and “is not perfect” and “needs more work.” This is said here not because it needs refining in the technical details or that it is poorly drafted. Since this website (“the BCR”), in anthropomorphic voice, very much likes the BBA 2013 and thinks it is very well crafted, any bill that takes it as its model and largely follows its direction, as the BBA 2019 unsurprisingly does, is likely to be well crafted as well.

One provision in the BBA 2019 cannot be said to be a good idea, even though it is not poorly written: Section 101(c) (BBA 2019) provides yet another new adjustment to the discretionary spending limits, this time it is for the 2020 Census. If this is the amount of money they wanted for this policy related to the Census, they had other options, none wonderful, but all better than this method:

  1. Wait for the Appropriations process and persuade Congress to spend the money, meaning provide the budget authority for this purpose for this fiscal year.
  2. Place a specific appropriation in the bill and spend it outright in this bill. This of course would be actually scored to the bill, and harm their rhetoric about “offsetting” the increase in discretionary spending with direct spending reductions. With the the authors have done it, it is a “cap adjustment” , which means they do not have to pay for it. The Office of Management and Budget will dutifully adjust the spending limits (just revised in the bill) by the amount and no problems about offsets or scores or unpleasant breaches in the spending limits.
  3. Done the same thing but structure it as a freestanding provision of law. This would bring the same exact result, but at least it would not clutter up the law with this embarrassing provision, which will stay there long after the time has past, long after the money has been obligated, maybe even spent out, and there it will be as a reminder to how badly things have gone in the latter part of the teens of the 21st Century (for Congress and budgetary enforcement) .

July 29, 2019

When is a spending limit not a spending limit? Answer: When it has been adjusted. This is not a funny joke, but as mentioned below, budget process humor is tough to come by. It is meaningful insofar as perhaps the central aspect of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 (BBA 2019, as work in progress) is to raise the last two remaining discretionary spending limits originally set forth by the Budget Control Act of 2011. That bill put in place a labyrinthine procedure by which certain calculations are required should a specially established Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction fail to produce, and Congress enact, a bill decreasing the deficit by $2.5 trillion over ten years. Not surprisingly, it failed.

Hence another set of discretionary spending limits kicked in with divided defense and non-defense amounts through fiscal year 2021. It does not end there because each year, the Office of Management and Budget must adjust those limits as it annually recalculates the amounts by which the original deficit goal is to be reached. These revised levels are published in the Sequestration Preview Report, as is required to be submitted by OMB to Congress each year by section 254 of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (BBEDCA).

When looking for the spending limits to be raised for comparison, one might think to look in the law, specifically section 251(c) (BBEDCA). That would be wrong.  So where is the Preview report? It is pretty easy to find, in particular on this site it is under both §053. OMB and §082.  Sequestration (with the nifty section based number system, a concept “borrowed” from the House Parliamentarian devised House Rules Manual by the way).

Or here: Sequestration Preview Report for Fiscal Year 2020 (March 18, 2019)

Or here: Table 2 – Adjusted Caps for 2020 from OMB 2020 Sequestration Preview Report to the President and Congress for Fiscal Year 2020 (March 18, 2019)

Or just the table, end of the maze, only to be amended:

July 28, 2019

A sense of humor is not often found, nor appreciated, on Capitol Hill, where everyone seems to be very much on the serious side, even when strange and zany things are happening all over the place. When it comes up, it deserves to be noted. An amendment was allowed to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 when it was debated on Thursday, July 25. It was offered by Rep. Massie and one can glean its substance by the following from the Congressional Record:

Amendment Offered by Mr. Massie

  Mr. MASSIE. Mr. Speaker, I have an amendment at the desk to change 
the title of the bill to: ``A bill to kick the can down the road, and 
for other purposes.''
  The SPEAKER pro tempore. The Clerk will report the amendment.
  The Clerk read as follows:

       Amend the title so as to read: ``A bill to kick the can 
     down the road, and for other purposes.''.

  The SPEAKER pro tempore. Under clause 6 of rule XVI, the amendment is 
not debatable.
  The question is on the amendment.
  The question was taken; and the Speaker pro tempore announced that 
the noes appeared to have it.
  Mr. MASSIE. Mr. Speaker, on that I demand the yeas and nays.
  The yeas and nays were ordered.
  The SPEAKER pro tempore. This is a 5-minute vote.
  The vote was taken by electronic device, and there were--yeas 47, 
nays 384, not voting 1, as follows
July 24, 2019

The latest in the two-year budget cycle, the virtual biennial budgeting that has been the case, if not the law, at least since 2013, continues with the latest deal: The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 is nothing unexpected, and once again follows the BBA 2013 model. That is a welcome consistency insofar as that law was pretty well drafted and has served its purpose and then some.

The bill, H.R. 3877 (116th Congress), also includes yet another deeming resolution for the fiscal year 2021 budget year, so that has been taken care of well in advance of the April 15, 2020 deadline.

When it becomes a public law, it will show up here in the same way the previous BBA incarnations have been set out. It has been a slow year, a slow Congress really, a slow past five years or so, in the realm of budget law. Even with the shutdown, which is not so much budgeting as anti-budgeting.

July 23, 2019

The expected deal was unexpected in being reached so early in the year, before the August break, and without the latter looming: So the deal sounds much like the previous three in the broad outlines, though this one includes a debt ceiling increase as well. The question remains as to who is writing it, but the best bet is that it will follow the BBA2013, BBA2015, and BBA 2018 in form, though whether it will be named Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 is an open question. It does not sing, but Congress sounds silly when they try and get artsy with their bill names. 

The bill language will be the interesting thing about the bill, the actual numbers not so much: They raised the last spending limits from those set by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which is only surprising in how not surprising it is. The rest is just the gritty details, which is the fun part here.

May30, 2019

The Senate had a hearing on fixing the budget process a few weeks ago. Cynicism is easy to come by on the topic, optimism is scarce, and the need for those to be reversed is great.


Random thoughts from days past … collectively just called: The Blather File.

Items of Note

Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019
H. Res. 6 (116th Congress)
The Joint Committee on Budget and Appropriations has a website …
Whither the Budget Committee? Wither the Budget Committee

Biennial Budgeting and the Budget as Law: An Inadvertent Trial Run
The Daft Draft: Wording and Debt Limit Language

Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018
Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (Pub. L. 115-123)
Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform (BBA 2018)

H. J. Res. 128, Continuing Resolution (Expiring February 8, 2018)
H. Con. Res. 71 (FY2018 Budget Resolution)
Bad Idea: Directed Scoring Provision
Current services budget deadline missed, again

Items of Note, the List

Budget Process

For some background on budget process, history, and reform: Analysis: Contemplating the Congressional Budget Process

Quote: the way the future looked and looks

“2002? Who cares about 2002? Do you think any of us will still be here then?”

Rick May, Staff Director of the House Budget Committee in 1996 when advised of the implications a particular policy might have in the (then) future of 2002.

Periodic Counsel advisory

The Periodic Counsel Advisory was a sometime explanation of budgetary matters that was sent out by the Chief Counsel of the House Budget Committee some years ago, before leaving during the 115th Congress. 

Current Budget Resolution

None: Fiscal year 2020 levels have been deemed in the House, and the Senate has reported a concurrent resolution)