Cap Even in budget law, the term levels can mean a variety of things, though each has to do with amounts of budgetary resources or related matter. This may mean the actual spending or receipts, or the authority to make legal obligations or collect receipts. The latter distinction is an important one: An “authorization of appropriation” is distinct from an actual appropriation, but when considering a legislative measure, the term “level” of authorization or “level” of appropriation are both appropriate.
Perhaps the most fundamental indication of “levels” can be found in section 308 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. Among the most important aspects of the section is the requirement that the Congressional Budget Office and the Budget Committees maintain “Up-To-Date Tabulations of Congressional Budget Action”. These are commonly known as “current levels” and they are inserted into the Congressional Record by the Chairmen of the Budget Committees, after consulting with CBO, which calculates the numbers. These indicate what actions Congress has taken and how those actions that result in the enactment of law compare with the budget resolution in force.
In the Senate, these “current levels” are termed “Scorekeeping Reports“ and serve much the same function. The Senate Budget Committee has been more consistent in placing reports in the Congressional Record than the House Budget Committee. In some years, the latter has gone for long stretches without doing any report being made.
In the House, these reports are more irregular in their publication in the Congressional Record. This makes it difficult to know where Committees stand in relation to the level of spending under their jurisdiction, though as a practical matter, because new resources are rarely provided to Committees for their “discretionary action”, it means all new direct spending must be offset in order to comply with the points of order. In the House, all points of order are waived on all bills other than appropriations measures, so this does not stand as a formidable barrier.
The Current Level and Discretionary Action
Though the term “discretionary action” has been discontinued for authorizing committees, in the allocation table of older budget resolutions, term is used to indicate an amount of budget authority allowed to Committees to spend as they see fit. The term was discontinued due to the confusion between “discretionary action” that could be used for direct spending, and the term “discretionary spending” which is an entirely separate category from direct spending.
From the Joint Explanatory Statement of Managers on the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985:
Separation between current level and discretionary action
All amounts – new budget authority, outlays, entitlement authority, and new credit authority – are allocated in two separate components, “Current Level” and “Discretionary Action”. Current level refers to amounts provided or required by law as a result of permanent appropriations, advance appropriations, existing entitlement authority, and “prior-year” outlays from discretionary appropriations. Some of these laws can also provide credit authority, which is allocated in the “current level” category, as are direct loans that result from defaults on guaranteed loans. Discretionary action refers to all amounts assumed in the budget resolution but not yet enacted into law for “direct spending” legislation and for discretionary appropriations for such fiscal year. There is only one target for discretionary action entitlement authority, applying to all entitlement legislation whether funded through Federal, revolving, or trust funds. The discretionary action allocation of budget authority, outlays, and entitlement authority would include any assumed legislative increase or decrease to existing permanent or entitlement law, and all new discretionary appropriations for such fiscal year. Such assumed action also includes new credit legislation and new loan limitations to be established by the Committee on Appropriations. The term “discretionary action” corresponds to “new discretionary budget authority” and to “new entitlement authority” as used in the Budget Act.
U.S. Congress, Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of Conference on the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, House Ways and Means Committee, H. Rept. 99-433, 99th Congress, 2nd sess, December 10, 1985,