Cyclopedia

Joint Budget Resolution

Summary

A joint budget resolution is the notion of enacting a budget for the Federal Government as a single governing document.


Current Process

Under the current system, the President is required to submit a budget under section 1105 of title 31 of the U.S. Code. It has no force of law and serves to provide information to Congress and to put forth his proposed policies and priorities. Under section 301 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, Congress must adopt a budget for each fiscal year. This “budget resolution” takes the form of a “concurrent resolution” that is only applicable to the internal procedures of Congress. Since 1999, Congress has routinely failed to adopt a budget resolution, but even when observing the process at it is designed to work, it sets levels enforceable through parliamentary procedures and points of order, which can be waived or ignored. 


Options

When considering the method by which a joint budget resolution could be enacted, the primary question to be answered, not surprisingly, is its content. Other considerations, such as whether it should be adopted through an expedited process, are not unimportant, but they make its parameters even more important.

If a joint budget resolution were given special streamlined procedures to be enacted, concerns would immediately be expressed about whether the law being created would become a vehicle for other matters, much as reconciliation procedures under section 310 (CBA), has become, with the imposing restraint of the Byrd Rule. With the breakdown of the appropriations process, and the depressingly regular resort to a single omnibus appropriation bill after the expiration of the fiscal year, this same dynamic could be seen occurring with a joint resolution. Appropriation bills are not given expedited consideration, but without their enactment, the government shuts down, and hence the impetus for their enactment is inexorable.

Discretionary Spending Limits

The problematic nature of discretionary spending limits is that they are set with the expectation that future years overall level will prove to be somewhat more parsimonious than proves to be the case. What has happened, invariably, is that almost immediately after the budget year, that is to say the outyears, the spending limits are already targeted for increases. An anomalous situation occurred in the years following the mid-term elections of 1994, and Republicans returned to the majority in Congress for the first time in four decades. As a new majority that ran on a platform of fiscal austerity, discretionary spending became a target for reductions beneath the discretionary limits that had been set in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (Pub. L. 103-66), President William Clinton’s first budget, and the Republican budget resolution for fiscal year 1996 set the overall levels of discretionary spending (the “section 302(a) allocation” to the Appropriations Committees) lower than the statutory level. 

In either case, over time, Congressional budget resolutions have often diverged in the level of discretionary spending from the either the level set in BBEDCA, and also from the amount requested by the President in his budget submission. Under these circumstances, three different appropriation levels are open for negotiation, with the end result being the fourth, which is a compromise at a negotiated amount.

With a joint budget resolution, presumably it would be enacted in the “current year“,  defined as the fiscal year immediately preceding the budget year. The fiscal year to which the first discretionary spending limit in the joint resolution would likely be the budget year, the fiscal year to which the budget resolution first applies. Even with five or ten year spending limits set, a question for anyone advocating a joint resolution on the budget would be whether these limits should be revisited every year, and if so under what controls. For example, discretionary spending limits might only be allowed to be revisited every third year (or longer). The amount, too, might be open for some form of control, allowing it to be lowered, but not raised.

Policy Changes

While almost anything the Federal Government does involves money in one way or another, but has been seen through the application of the “Byrd Rule” in reconciliation measures prohibiting provisions without a direct effect on spending or revenue, a good deal of policy might be deemed to be “extraneous” in a budgetary sense. Since budgets resolutions are primarily procedural in nature, and Congress has treated them that way, significant policy changes may be kept out of a joint resolution.

This ignores a very important aspect of Congressional budgeting, which is the tendency to build in special procedural treatment for certain policies. This usually takes the form of “reserve funds” that allow for the adjustments of allocations and aggregates for particular legislation, depending on how it is structured. Whether such sort of policy or procedural features would continue, or to what extent, is an important element of how a joint budget resolution would be implemented were the choice made.


References

The Better Budget Process Initiative: Strengthening the Budget Resolution (Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget) April 16, 2016

Joint Budget Resolution: A More Collaborative Budget Process  (Mercatus) May 24, 2016


References

Roy Meyers (Former CBO) The Budget Resolution Should Be a Law (Public Budgeting & Finance) Fall 1990


Legislation

Title I – Budget With A  Force of Law from the Comprehensive Budget Process Reform Act of 1999 (H.R. 853) 

U.S. House of Representatives – Legally Binding Budget Act of 2012, H.R. 3575 (112th Congress) January 31, 2012

U.S. House of Representatives – Report on the Legally Binding Budget Act of 2012 (H. Rept. 112-379) January 31, 2012

 

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