Budget Procedures and the Path Not Taken

If, like me, you came of age in the heyday of the Congressional Budget Act and expect things to unfold in a certain, predictable way, it’s time for a quick refresher course on what does and doesn’t have to happen now that both Houses have passed FY 2014 budget resolutions. The quick answer is that “nothing has to happen,” and probably nothing will unless the president and congressional negotiators reach a “grand bargain” on fiscal issues.

The Hill‘s Erik Wasson lays it out:

The Senate’s passage of a budget for the first time in four years sets the stage for leaders to name conferees to negotiate a compromise measure. A reconciled budget resolution would then be put before the full House and Senate for votes….

Experts say the two may wait until President Obama delivers his delayed budget in early April. With a hike to the debt ceiling scheduled for summer, Obama is set to push for another “grand bargain” on deficit reduction this summer.

A budget reconciliation bill could be used as the vehicle for such a deal because the Senate budget contains reconciliation instructions that a conference committee could rewrite.

If Obama and House and Senate leaders agreed on a grand deal cutting entitlements and raising taxes, the budget reconciliation instructions would protect that package from a filibuster.

If there’s no “grand bargain,” there won’t be any particular need to go to conference in a futile effort to bridge the gap between Senate and House budget resolutions. But the procedural drill is a reminder of why the White House persists in thinking a “grand bargain” is possible, precisely because it can be protected by Budget Act rules from filibuster, unlike just about everything else Congress does.

This should also serve as a reminder of the great national Path Not Taken: had Republicans won the White House and a working majority in the Senate last November, the budget process including reconciliation instructions and legislation would have been the vehicle for enacting the entire Ryan Budget. Indeed, the process of reducing high-end and corporate taxes (with or without specific “tax reform” offsets), block-granting Medicaid and SNAP, converting Medicare into a premium support system for those under 55, and inauguarating a vast reorientation of federal spending priorities might have been far advanced by this point in the calendar, particularly if a President Romney needed a blitzkrieg to reverse the partial or full expiration of the Bush tax cuts prior to his inauguration. Those unhappy with the sequester and the general drift of fiscal policy early in Obama’s second term, myself included, should probably keep that alternative America in mind.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.